Issue 10 / 6 September 2010

Ever wondered why the tobacco industry cares so much about Australian moves to bring in plain packaging of cigarettes?

Surely they don’t think people smoke because they like the stylish gold box or the picture of a large mammal with a hump? Or that brand loyalty will disappear just because the packs are a bit harder to tell apart?

No. What they are really worried about is that loss of brand recognition at the point of sale will undercut their latest attempts to lure young people into taking up the habit.

The explosion of open content and social media sites has made the ban on promoting tobacco products impossible to police and has created a bonanza for manufacturers.

A decade or so ago, the fight against tobacco marketing may have looked largely won. The first – pretty restrained by today’s standards – health warnings on cigarette packs appeared in 1973, to be followed by bans on advertising, sponsorship of sporting events and, eventually, on smoking in workplaces and other public spaces.

Smoking may have seemed set to become the pastime of a declining number of diehard addicts, who were more to be pitied than condemned.

But then came the internet. Although the big companies claim they do not advertise online, that hasn’t stopped anyone from setting up viral marketing campaigns designed to make smoking look cool to a whole new generation of potential customers.

Researchers from the University of Otago’s department of public health recently searched YouTube for clips related to cigarette brands.

More than 70% of the videos they analysed were pro-smoking, while only about 4% were against. One pro-smoking music video had been viewed two million times, they said.

Some anti-smoking campaigners are now doing their best to fight fire with fire, though. Becky Freeman and Simon Chapman from Sydney University’s school of public health have set up a Facebook group to monitor online tobacco promotion.

Posts on their wall will lead you to some pretty blatant examples. Type the words “camel crush” into YouTube, for example, and you’ll immediately see the kinds of tactics being used to woo young smokers.

“You’ve just got to try it for yourself”, a cool dude says in one so-called cigarette review after slowly sucking the smoke into his lungs. “It’s not harsh at all. It’s very mellow, very chilled …”

The big tobacco marketing people would be crazy not to take advantage of such opportunities to talk directly to young people.

But, take away the visual images on packs, and you seriously limit their ability to sell the brand online let alone elsewhere. No wonder they’re screaming.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer. She has worked for Melbourne’s The Age and contributed to publications including the BMJ, The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is also a former news and features editor with Australian Doctor magazine. Her book, The sex factory, on the science of sex and gender will be published by UNSW Press later this year.

Posted 6 September 2010

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