PHILIPPINES: Despite Ad Ban, Tobacco Industry Seduces Customers

  • by Kara Santos* (manila)
  • Thursday, August 12, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

These are ‘creative’ ways that tobacco manufacturers are using to get consumers in this South-east Asian country, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) says is already the world’s 15th largest cigarette market.

Because the Philippines’ tobacco regulation act of 2003 tightened restrictions on direct advertising of tobacco products, their manufacturers are getting very innovative, anti-tobacco campaigners say.

They have taken to holding small pockets of events that are 'hardly noticeable but get better results,' says Roberto del Rosario of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance Philippines (FCAP), a non-governmental coalition of tobacco control advocates.

For instance, the law bans tobacco firms from sponsoring 'any sport, concert, cultural art or event' that involves the advertisement or promotion of cigarettes or uses names, logos, trademarks, symbols, designs or colours associated with a tobacco product.

But thus far, events like a three-day motorcycle tour in May — called ‘Marlboro Road Trip’ — have been held successfully. In that event, dozens of motorcycle aficionados clad in red and black jackets, jerseys, sunglasses and backpacks, gunned their engines for a more than 370 kilometre tour that took them from Manila to Naga city to the south.

The makers of Marlboro cigarettes in the Philippines — Philip Morris Philippines Manufacturing Inc (PMPMI) — provided the fuel, gear and accommodations during the trip. 'Everything was free. We just had to register, then there was a test drive qualifier and we could choose who among our club could go on the trip,' a 27-year-old biker, a smoker, recounted to IPS.

In the event venue stood tents in Marlboro’s signature red and white colours, while banners bore the slogan ‘Road to Flavour’. Chris Nelson, PMPMI managing director, called the bike riders 'modern cowboys,' referring to the iconic image of cowboys riding off into the sunset associated with the Marlboro brand.

Anti-smoking campaigners say all of these were no doubt advertising, but PMPMI says it made sure there was no direct advertising and that all communication about its tobacco products were only for event participants and adults.

'To the best of our knowledge, no communication relating to our brands was visible to the general public, including minors, during the entire conduct of the Marlboro Road Trip,' PMPMI spokesman Elmer Mesina said in an e-mail reply to questions sent by IPS.

But 'using the colour bright red and knowing that the activity is being sponsored by Marlboro, for instance, are in itself advertising,' says Josefina Buenaseda, FCAP legal counsel.

Mesina says that his company is 'firmly opposed to youth smoking' and 'does not market to minors.' He adds: 'Our communications and activities are intended for adult smokers only, with the aim of encouraging adults who choose to smoke to choose our brands instead of those of our competitors.'

Buenaseda says that while sponsorships are banned, promotional activities for those above 18 years old are regulated under the law. But tobacco firms have used these to advertise its products to the public, she adds.

FCAP says cigarettes are pushed heavily through ‘below the line’ or non-traditional advertising like public relations, events, promotions, merchandising, signages, the use of women promoters, and digital advertising.

Subtle product placements abound — in restaurants, bakeries, billiard halls, junk shops, gasoline stations and mass transit terminals. Canopies bearing cigarette brands are a common sight in open-air restaurants. Coasters, napkin holders and lamps with cigarette logos are used in restaurants and bars frequented by young people.

Young Filipinos in fact make good clientele in this country of 94 million people. A total of 22.7 percent of Filipinos aged 13-15 were smoking as of 2009, up from 15.9 percent in 2008. After Indonesia, the Philippines has the second highest number of smokers — about 30 million — in South-east Asia.

At the same time, smoking-related diseases cause 240 deaths daily in the country, says the WHO 2009 Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic. FCAP says that 80,000 Filipinos die every year due to tobacco-related diseases.

Anti-tobacco groups want a complete and tighter ban on all forms of promotion of tobacco in the country.

According to the 2009 Philippines’ Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS), pro-cigarette ads are seen by seven out of every 10 Filipinos mostly in stores (53.7 percent), and on posters, leaflets or calendars (31.7 percent). The most popular form of cigarette promotion are clothes or items with brand names and logos on them, the survey adds. Loopholes in the law as well as low taxes and cheap prices of tobacco products add to the Philippines’ appeal as a market for tobacco products.

A provision allowing advertising, including leaflets and posters, inside point-of-sale retail establishments, has led to the excess of tobacco signages put up in convenience stores, called ‘sari-sari stores’ locally.

Buenaseda says the tobacco industry has twisted the interpretation of the law. 'They have chosen to extend this to neon lights, big tarpaulins, billboards and the like in point-of-sale establishments, which do not come within the classification of ‘leaflets and posters’,' she says.

Cigarettes here are among the cheapest in the world at less than a dollar a pack. Excise taxes comprise only 28 percent of the retail price, compared to 69 percent in Singapore.

Likewise, cigarettes are sold in five or 10-stick packs, or per piece. 'The packaging now is also more attractive and by mere flavour alone, they are targeting the youth,' says Del Rosario, referring to menthol, chocolate and candy- flavoured cigarettes.

But some like Nino Chico, 19, think tobacco advertising does not really make a difference. 'There’s no effect for those already hooked,' he tells IPS. 'Even without ads, if children see their relatives or classmates smoking, they’ll want to try it,' says Chico, who started smoking at 15 because 'all his uncles and older cousins smoked'.

A government committee oversees the implementation of the law on tobacco advertising. It has as member the FCAP, but also the departments of trade and industry, agriculture, the National Tobacco Administration and the tobacco industry.

'It's like assigning the fox to watch over the sheep,' says Del Rosario. 'When it comes to making votes, they want to protect their interests.'

*This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific as part the Tobacco Control Media Fellowship, which is being implemented by Probe Media Foundation Inc. and the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance Philippines (FCAP).

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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