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Friday, February 09, 2001

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Smoke signals

THERE IS A curious analogy to be made with the Government's proposed crackdown on tobacco advertising and the ban on smoking in public.

When Bombay became Mumbai, Madras, Chennai, and the latest, Calcutta to Kolkata, did it in any way transform life for the common citizen? Did it make the sun shine brighter, traffic snarls disappear, roads cleaner? Did one have uninterrupted power and wa ter supply? Not a whit, one should think. The proposed Tobacco Products Bill to ban sponsorship of sports and cultural events by cigarette and other tobacco product companies smacks of naivete on the part of the law-makers. While advertising messages do influence purchase decisions, merely disallowing sponsorships and advertising of tobacco products is not going to stem the habit among hardcore users. Also as long as the sale of cigarettes and tobacco is legal, youth at an impressionable age, will find means of sourcing it. After all, the pleasure is more to indulge in a forbidden activity.

And, having nurtured and spawned a cigarette industry that yielded Rs 6,000 crore in excise revenues in 1999-2000, and which will yield an estimated Rs 6,500 crore in 2000-01, it is a rude jolt the Government can give. The country's largest cigarette-mak er, ITC's Chairman, said as much, that the industry has not been consulted on a matter that gives it a body blow. Will less advertising impact cigarette companies' sales? Unlikely, perhaps, as most will find means to get their brand message across, eithe r through surrogates, as the liquor industry is doing with eponymously-named brands of mineral water, or through brand extensions as ITC has already done with its WillSport range of apparel and Gold Flake Expressions greeting cards, or Godfrey Phillips w ith its Four Square cricketing gear. Cigarette companies have not yet faced the kind of legal action and compensation claims their counterparts in the West are bearing the brunt of, but the ban on advertising is, literally, taking a leaf from their book. New York City, for instance, has adopted some of the toughest laws on billboards which bar all outdoor advertisements within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, day-care centres and amusement arcades. A law so stringent that it eliminates tobacco advert ising in more than 90 per cent of the city. A law which reduces the daily exposure to the smoking messages that children have to contend with. Will the law here, when the Bill is passed, have the teeth to enforce the comprehensive ban envisaged?

Take the case of Kerala, the first State to ban smoking in public places. Enforced zealously when it was banned last year, information today suggests that smokers in public places fear no punitive action. Like a traffic offence, where some name-dropping and speed money does the trick, this law will probably be another avenue for petty corruption to flourish, a sad reflection, perhaps, of the times we live in. It could take quite a while for the anti-smoking brigade to garner numbers and strength in the country. For a large majority, life is a grind and, despite health warnings over smoking, most have other pressing concerns to worry about.

In the West, there are immense pressures on cigarette companies -- on the one hand is the general public antipathy to smoking and, on the other, the strong legal action to settle compensation claims. Cigarette brands such as Marlboro, Dunhill and Camel, have parlayed their strong equity into a range of apparel and lifestyle accessories, insuring themselves for the day when smoking becomes unfashionable, and when they can be recognised as a lifestyle brand rather than a cigarette brand. The situation in India is nowhere near what it is in the West. The proposed law against smoking in public places should not end up as another handle for the state to browbeat a hapless citizen.

Related links:
Govt crackdown on tobacco -- Bill soon to ban smoking in public, event sponsorship
ITC chief chews tobacco move -- Favours debate for obtaining industry point of view
Smoke `bomb' sends admen scurrying

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