Tobacco and Marketing: An Anomaly?

In September 1995, Pierre Omidyar, a 28-year old computer programmer finished the code for what would soon become eBay. Searching around for a test item, he put up a broken laser pointer for sale with the base price as $1. The laser pointer sold for $14.83. Shocked, Omidyar contacted the winning bidder to make sure he understood the laser pointer was broken. “Oh yes”, the bidder replied, “I am a collector of broken laser pointers.” Trade creates value by moving goods from people who value them less to people who value them more. Tobacco happens to be a product valued greatly by a variety of stakeholders. It is for this reason that we continue to trade and rampantly consume it in spite of its tribulations.

Much like the laser pointer, tobacco products are also ‘broken’ goods – unfit for use. Regardless, however, one can always find people wanting to purchase them, even if they have to bid high to acquire them. But, has anyone cared to wonder why? The answer to this question is obscure and complicated, yet evident and simple: “They are cool, available, and addictive.”

How are they cool? Well, celebrities endorse them in movies; Mickey Mouse, Popeye and The Flintstones on television. Why are they available? Probably because we want them, just as governments want their tax revenues and companies their profits. But they are addictive! Are McDonald’s, PUBG, and One Direction not? Tobacco products are like any other commodity. They have a demand and hence a supply. Now, in order to help demand meet supply, companies need to reach out to consumers by marketing themselves. These companies too, are like all other companies. They have a profit maximisation target and hence a purpose for existence.

However, despite having brought the tobacco industry at par with other industries, can we permit it to be part of the same marketing ambit? Or can we even permit it to market its products in the first place?

The earliest known advertisement in the United States was for the snuff and tobacco products of <P. Lorillard and Company and was placed in the New York daily papers in 1789. Advertising was an emerging concept, and tobacco-related advertisements were not seen as any different from those for other products: their negative impact on health was unknown at the time. American Tobacco was engaged in competitive advertising of its Bull Durham chewable tobacco leaves as well. Around the Great Depression, it ran campaigns like the “Roll Your Own” campaign and boosted outdoor advertising by way of elegant wall paintings and graffiti. These cleverly designed advertisements were made to persuade the lower and middle-class masses to imitate the upper-class gentry by purchasing elite yet economical tobacco products: a bag of tobacco for just a nickel at the time. Through their “Hit the Bull” campaign, the Blackwell Company was able to rope in baseball players to endorse their brand. If we observe carefully, such marketing techniques are not only ludicrous but also morally unacceptable today. An advertisement depicting class distinction would bring doom upon the company, and no sports person would endorse these products, parents would rush to scrape off wall paintings before their children could have a glance. Why is there this sudden change in our attitude towards tobacco? It is generally a legal substance after all, unless specifically prohibited as done in a few countries…

The answer lies in our awareness: I believe we are more informed about the dangers of tobacco than ever before. The first noteworthy scientific report concerning the dangers of cigarettes was published in 1964, by the Surgeon General of the United States. Terry (1964) illustrates important deductions by the Advisory Committee – smoking was found to be: “A cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men, a probable cause of lung cancer in women, the most important cause of chronic bronchitis.”

Senators in the US, thereafter, passed several laws to regulate the advertising of tobacco products. The Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 mandated all cigarette boxes to come with a warning label. In 1971, there was a ban on the advertisement of tobacco products on television and radio. Countries like Australia have defeated giants like Philip Morris by legislating “plain packaging” of cigarettes in order to intensify the fight against tobacco. Very similar to a depiction in the movie Thank you for Smoking(2005), cigarette companies in India have attempted partnering with Bollywood to get celebrities to promote smoking. The government has hence made it mandatory to include cautionary messages in films and music videos that show people smoking. This comes in response to cigarette companies trying to attract and indulge youngsters in embracing their poison. “They try to hook our kids using cartoons and symbols.”

The global population of smokers increased from 721 million in 1980 to 967 million in 2012, and the number of cigarettes smoked has risen from 4.96 trillion to 6.25 trillion between the same time periods. Of the 1.22 billion smokers today, 1 billion of them live in developing or transitional economies. Rates of smoking have levelled off or declined in the developed world. In the developing world, tobacco consumption is rising by 3.4% every year. In 2002, about 20% of teens aged 13 to 15 smoked tobacco worldwide. Approximately 80,000 to 100,000 children in this age bracket begin smoking every day. Half of those who begin smoking in adolescent years are projected to go on to smoke for 15 to 20 years. Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer. It has been rightly said that “tobacco takes care of its own” and own only: an invisible Invisible Hand.

Against all odds, we are striving to change the “smoking is cool” notion, we are motivated to invent new kinds of alternatives that are not ‘addictive’ and also come up with treatments for lung diseases, but, in the face of our numerous measures to counter the tobacco menace, nothing really seems to be working. Probably because of its extensive ‘availability’ that no one is willing to put an end to. Why would they? The global spending, right from manufacturing cigarettes to treating the diseases they leave behind, is unbelievably enormous. The tobacco industry generates an income for not only its own farmers and employees but also other industries, their stakeholders, and governments at large. In 2014, tobacco companies spent more than $9 billion on marketing cigarettes and smokeless tobacco in the United States. This amount translates to nearly $25 million each day, or about $1 million every hour (Federal Trade Commission, 2016). Smoking-related illness in the United States costs more than $300 billion each year (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2014). Notwithstanding the economic wonders (including tax revenues) it is doing, only truly passionate, non-profit, non-governmental organizations are capable of opposing the ‘availability’ of tobacco. But, how many of these godly organizations actually exist?

After having intricately analyzed the trade mechanics of tobacco and its marketing approach, I can obviously agree that tobacco products do not qualify as ethically marketable products. I will certainly not provide marketing services to Big Tobacco or be one of those lawyers that protect cigarette companies in lawsuits. However, this being said, I also do not believe it is morally correct for us to deprive tobacco companies of access to marketing. Should it be regulated? Absolutely. Can we allow it to cater to all age groups? Absolutely not. But should we not ban its marketing completely? If and only if we are also banning cigarettes and all other forms of tobacco. Half-convinced that would never happen, I believe there at least needs to be stringent legislation on a code of conduct for tobacco firms to follow for advertisement of their products locally. What is ethical for one country might be the gravest of crimes for another. We cannot have a universal code of conduct in this aspect, nor can we decide for legal consumers: that would be morally presumptuous. After all, they have a choice of their own.


Shivang Singh

An ambitious, perseverant, and all-rounded parliamentarian in the making...

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