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Counter Marketing

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Decades of tobacco industry marketing—promoting both tobacco products and the reputations of the companies that sell them—have left billions of consumers underinformed about the harms of tobacco products and the practices of the industry that promotes them.

Counter-marketing consists of strategies that limit the industry’s ability to use deceptive commercial marketing, such as its promotion of “light” cigarettes that deceivingly suggest reduced harm, and engaging in proactive communication with consumers to underline the harms of tobacco products.

Regulatory bans on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship (TAPS) are a key intervention enshrined in the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control since 2005. When comprehensive bans are in place, one study of more than 100 countries showed tobacco consumption can drop by 8%. However, poorly defined regulations and a rapidly evolving and globalized communication landscape, especially the proliferation of social media, have challenged most countries’ efforts to enact comprehensive bans, and the tobacco industry has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to skirt or break regulations.

For example, where countries restrict tobacco billboards and print media advertising, tobacco companies may instead use “power walls” in retail environments, often with hundreds of boxes, cartons, and other brand-focused elements. These tactics help to enhance brand recognition, normalize tobacco use, and generate positive images of using tobacco. Entertainment media have been another route by which the tobacco industry has circumvented marketing restrictions and sought to promote tobacco use. The WHO has noted the positive portrayals of tobacco in films and entertainment media as undermining tobacco control marketing laws, not only domestically but also internationally as this content is made available across borders.

In addition to enacting strong and comprehensive legislation, countries should implement ongoing monitoring that can capture marketing violations, new products, and consumer attitudes. Policy makers need good data to respond to new products because flavors and social media marketing, especially using influencers, often attract children and youth.

Countries should also undertake proactive efforts to inform consumers about the harms of tobacco use and the long history of unethical behavior by the tobacco industry. Proactive counter-marketing strategies include:

Graphic pack warnings: Laws requiring tobacco packaging to include graphic health warnings that remind users of the grave health risks associated with smoking are a powerful deterrent. In Kenya, for example, graphic packaging labels were found to be more likely to convince smokers to forgo smoking than labels that contained text-only warnings.

Kenya’s graphic pack warning
Kenya’s graphic pack warning

Plain packaging: Plain, standardized packaging of tobacco products removes another important avenue for branding as familiar logos and colors are removed. The appeal of branded packaging is a known factor encouraging children and young people to begin smoking.

Warnings on tobacco depictions in media: Legislation that places warnings against tobacco in film or television content that depicts its use is another effective countermeasure to tobacco marketing. The warnings or disclaimers serve as reminders of tobacco’s harm and also serve to dissuade such depictions in television and film. Though few countries have such regulations, India’s “Movie Rule”—which requires an on-screen health warning each time tobacco use is depicted—is one good example of such counter-marketing.

Translated caption from a film in India: “Tobacco use/smoking is deadly and alcohol consumption is injurious to health”

Population-level media campaigns: Media campaigns that explicitly reject tobacco industry narratives and display the human suffering associated with tobacco are very effective forms of counter-marketing. For example, in 2019 Turkey’s first anti-industry campaign “Their Gain, Our Loss” was launched. This pre-tested campaign was designed to challenge people’s perceptions of the tobacco industry.

In 2019 Turkey’s first anti-industry campaign “Their Gain, Our Loss” was launched.
In 2019 Turkey’s first anti-industry campaign “Their Gain, Our Loss” was launched.





WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic, 2023: protect people from tobacco smoke. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2023. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.


McNeill A, Lewis S, Quinn C, et al. Evaluation of the removal of point-of-sale tobacco promotional displays in Ireland. Tob Control 2011;20:137–43. doi:10.1136/tc.2010.038141.

Donovan R, Jancey J, Jones S. Tobacco point of sale advertising increases positive brand user imagery. Tob Control 2002;11:191–4. doi:10.1136/tc.11.3.191.

Smoking in movies:

Leonardi‐Bee J, Nderi M, Britton J. Smoking in movies and smoking initiation in adolescents: systematic review and meta‐analysis. Addiction. 2016 Oct;111(10):1750-63.

Tobacco marketing:

Biener L, Albers AB. Young adults: vulnerable new targets of tobacco marketing. American Journal of Public Health. 2004 Feb;94(2):326-30.

Glantz S. WHO spotlights films as “cross-border tobacco promotion” UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. October 2, 2016.“cross-border-tobacco-promotion”.

Pollay RW. More than meets the eye: on the importance of retail cigarette merchandising. Tob Control 2007;16:270–4. doi:10.1136/tc.2006.018978.

Tobacco product plain packaging

Gravely S, Chung-Hall J, Craig LV, Fong GT, Cummings KM, Borland R, Yong HH, Loewen R, Martin N, Quah AC, Hammond D. Evaluating the impact of plain packaging among Canadian smokers: findings from the 2018 and 2020 ITC Smoking and Vaping Surveys. Tobacco control. 2021 Sep 16.

Hammond D. ” Plain packaging” regulations for tobacco products: the impact of standardizing the color and design of cigarette packs. salud pública de méxico. 2010;52:S226-32.

Turkey anti-tobacco campaign

Keklik, S., Gultekin-Karakas, D. Anti-tobacco control industry strategies in Turkey. BMC Public Health 18, 282 (2018).

Warning labels:

Fong GT, Hammond D, Hitchman SC. The impact of pictures on the effectiveness of tobacco warnings. Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 2009;87:640-3.

Hammond D, Fong GT, McNeill A, Borland R, Cummings KM. Effectiveness of cigarette warning labels in informing smokers about the risks of smoking: findings from the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Four Country Survey. Tobacco control. 2006 Jun 1;15(suppl 3):iii19-25.

Strahan EJ, White K, Fong GT, Fabrigar LR, Zanna MP, Cameron R. Enhancing the effectiveness of tobacco package warning labels: a social psychological perspective. Tobacco control. 2002 Sep 1;11(3):183-90.

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