It is vital to counter positive and misleading tobacco industry messages about tobacco use by educating people about the real harms. Bans on marketing are not only crucial but must also keep up with the sea changes in new media. Warning labels on packs and plain packaging (i.e., removing branding) are also interventions proven to discourage initiation and encourage quitting. Governments must also invest more in mass media campaigns to reach widely across the population.
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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.
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.
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.
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