This is how some tobacco companies are allegedly bypassing advertising regulations


Belinda Pheto

The Tobacco Interference Index Report has revealed the role of social media influencers within the cigarette industry Picture:

The cigarette industry stands accused of practising advertising and marketing tactics which are, a report claims, being used to bypass advertising regulations.

The Tobacco Interference Index Report was released on Thursday by the National Council Against Smoking, the African Centre for Tobacco Industry Monitoring and Policy Research (Atim) and the UCT Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products (Reep).

The use of social influencers came up in the report, where the tobacco industry was found to be using creative ways of advertising their products.

The tobacco control laws in SA prohibits advertising or promoting tobacco products through sponsorship of any organisation, event or service.

Director of the National Council Against Smoking, Savera Kalideen, said the tobacco industry used the #TakeBackTheTax campaign on social media to mobilise public support and framed illicit trade as a big concern.

“[One company] even vowed to use about R30m from Sars to tackle the illegal tobacco trade and announced it will commit this entire rebate to the #TakeBackTheTax initiative fighting the illegal trade in cigarettes,” she said.

The report also highlighted the trend of using influencers to blur the lines between what was legal and what was not.

“[One company] sent a prominent radio talk show host to Italy, all expenses paid, for the opening of the Milan Design Week for the promotion of the new IQOS product,” the report states.

IQOS is a heating tobacco smoking alternative.

“The radio show host published posts about the IQOS exhibition, which was sent to more than 2 million followers, including short videos of the exhibition and an interview with the tobacco company’s marketing director,” reads the report.

It continued that the radio show host was one of at least five prominent social media influencers who posted about the product this year.

According to the report, another lifestyle vlogger and Instagrammer, who has more than 10,300 Twitter followers, tweeted about a tobacco job for influencers: “Looking for Nelson Mandela University (NMU) students who are keen to become brand ambassadors for a tobacco brand. You have to be a student at NMU, between the ages of 22-24, have an [minimum] of 1,500 followers and be a smoker.”

The report says more than 150 people replied, some posting pictures of themselves with cigarettes as examples.

“Smokers were also invited to celebrate the launch of IQOS at an event attended by celebrities.

“[A prominent tobacco company] launched a new online Tinder campaign, aimed to encourage singles to stop smoking, titled ‘Unsmoke the world, one match at a time’, which reached over a million people in two weeks on the matchmaking platform,” reads the report.

The report says the tobacco industry also used influencers to do market research.

“A leaked contract revealed that a Johannesburg-based company paid influencers to attend social events with boxes of [a company’s] brands. Once at the event, the influencers were told to chat to other partygoers about the brand they were assigned and return with intel on trends, suggestions for new packaging, and any promotions run by other brands. This included photos and videos of the people they spoke to.”

Professor Olalekan Ayo-Yusuf, the director for Atim, said the tobacco industry in the country was involved in unethical behaviour because they misled the public about the dangers of smoking and the addictiveness of their products.

He added that the industry also used illegal means to break into markets and actively stimulate and support illicit trade.

Professor Corné van Walbeek, director of Reep, said the number of premature tobacco-related deaths are still in the thousands each year.

“The corona pandemic has focused our minds on the value of life. As a society, we need the same level of vigilance when it comes to the production of a deadly product. The ban on the sale of tobacco products during lockdown has been very helpful to some, although the ban has been divisive, even with colleagues in the medical fraternity,” he said.

Walbeek said the ban encouraged a proportion of smokers to quit, adding that some people needed a push to take that step of quitting.

“The ban on the sale of tobacco products was exactly that push that was needed and hopefully those who quit will not relapse once the ban is lifted,” he said.


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