As international tobacco control interventions and standards gain traction, the tobacco industry is maneuvering its brands and products to navigate around marketing restrictions. Through less regulated channels, such as digital media, the industry uses a variety of tactics to attract new tobacco users—particularly among youth—and to reshape its image.
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The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) has led to widespread restrictions on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship around the world. Yet despite national laws designed to protect the public, especially youth, from the devastating consequences of tobacco consumption, tobacco companies have found creative ways to overcome these barriers. They use a variety of marketing strategies to create demand for cigarettes and other tobacco products by urging youth to experiment, reducing smokers’ motivation to quit, and encouraging former smokers to take it up again. In the US alone, the tobacco industry spent $8.2 billion on advertising and promoting cigarettes and smokeless tobacco in 2019.
Tobacco companies typically respond to marketing restrictions by reallocating resources to new marketing strategies. For example, when the government prohibits magazine and billboard advertising the industry moves to other tactics such as sponsorships (e.g., sports events), brand merchandising, brand stretching (putting tobacco brands on non-tobacco products), attractive packaging, point-of-sale promotions, and product placement. Increasingly, largely unregulated digital platforms—such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok—represent a critical marketing outlet for tobacco companies eager to skirt regulations restricting advertising.
The China Tobacco Ma Bo Hope Primary School in Beatrice, Zimbabwe
Tobacco companies around the world, often in low-HDI countries, not only sponsor schools but even name the schools after their companies.
On 13 September 2019, Tian Ze donated uniforms worth $216,000 to 688 children and 20 teachers of Ma Bo Hope Dunolly Primary School at a function attended by a China Tobacco International (CTI) delegation headed by Deputy General Manager, Mr Ling Yi. pic.twitter.com/eTdsekUfLi
— Tian Ze Tobacco Company (@TobaccoZe) September 17, 2019
Social media platforms—where young people spend a great deal of time—offer multiple advantages for companies attempting to capture future generations of smokers. They allow the tobacco industry to target individuals and engage consumers with online marketing promotions including contests, quizzes, and videos that encourage viewers to engage and share on their own social media accounts, thus generating considerable additional free advertising. Online content also obscures the point of origin, thus allowing tobacco companies to navigate past cross-border FCTC-compliant advertising restrictions.
Another way the industry targets youth via digital platforms is through covert ads—paying influencers with large social media followings to post about tobacco products, without disclosing any remuneration. These influencers build buzz around new products such as heated tobacco products like Philip Morris’ IQOS, which claims an increasing share of the company’s profits.
As the market shifts, the tobacco industry is moving away from marketing specific products such as cigarettes to promoting its brand as a whole. By distancing itself from its harmful association with the death and disease caused by tobacco products, the tobacco industry uses corporate social responsibility (CSR) to gain legitimacy, increase public trust, and advance its business interests. From building schools to funding scholarships to providing disaster relief, tobacco companies leverage these well-publicized acts of goodwill to gain influence with governments and try to mute restrictive tobacco marketing policies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, tobacco companies donated PPE, ventilators, and hand sanitizer around the world. This is not just an attempt to rehabilitate their public image but to lobby recipient governments to roll back restrictions (and taxes) on their products.
Given how tobacco marketing continually evolves, and especially since younger people are significant targets of the evolving media landscape, it is vital to systematically monitor the industry’s marketing practices and to strengthen the implementation of marketing restrictions under the FCTC, particularly to address the newest industry efforts.
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