Global tobacco marketing campaign accused of targeting minors

Anti-smoking advocates demand Philip Morris International halt campaign that they say will ensnare young smokers

According to a recent report, Marlboro's new ad campaign that allegedly targets youths has appeared in Argentina, China, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, the Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.
Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A stylish young woman clad in tight maroon pants and a short leather jacket has her fellow up against a brick wall as they share a passionate kiss. The caption underneath the photo reads, “Maybe never fell in love.”

A musician laughs while she picks a guitar, holding a lit cigarette in the other hand. The caption reads, “Maybe never wrote a song.”

A third young person is airborne above the outstretched hands of fellow concertgoers, accompanied by the caption “No more maybe.”

Each advertisement ends with the command to “Be Marlboro,” and is part of an international marketing campaign that public health advocates say is targeted toward children and teenagers in 50 countries with the goal of hooking them on a lifelong and deadly habit. 

On Wednesday, a group of those advocates, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Corporate Accountability International and the Alliance for the Control of Tobacco Use, released a report (PDF) detailing how the “Be Marlboro” blitz is designed specifically to appeal to minors and demanding that Philip Morris International immediately pull the advertisements. The report estimates, based on figures provided to investors, that the company spent at least $62 million on the campaign in 2012, the most recent figures available.

“The ‘Be Marlboro’ ads threaten the health of millions of youths,” Matthew Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in an interview with Al Jazeera. "Young, hip models, partying, thrill-seeking — it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at these ads and see that their primary impact will be on young people."

The report elaborates: “Using concepts and imagery consistent with the recommendations of previous Philip Morris internal research on marketing to teens, ‘Be Marlboro’ exploits adolescents’ search for identity by suggesting that — in the face of uncertainty — they should BE a Marlboro smoker. Although PMI claims that ‘Be Marlboro’ only targets legal-age smokers, campaign advertisements from around the world clearly focus on youth-oriented images and themes that appeal to teenagers and feature young, attractive models partying, falling in love, adventure traveling and generally being ‘cool.’”

The advertisements originally appeared in Germany in 2011 but were banned in that country in October 2013 after Munich regional authorities affirmed the sentiment of public health experts, declaring that the campaign violated Germany’s tobacco control laws pertaining to marketing to young people. Similar complaints are being considered in Brazil, Colombia and Switzerland.

Still, the advertisements have now appeared in print, online, on billboards and at bus stops in countries as varied as Argentina, China, Georgia, Latvia, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, the Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, according to the report.

Philip Morris International denied that its intent was to ensnare underage smokers.

"Our Marlboro campaign, like all of our marketing and advertising, is aimed exclusively at adult smokers and is conducted in compliance with local regulations and internal marketing policies. Allegations to the contrary are unfounded and based on a subjective interpretation,” a representative said in a written statement. “In those places where marketing and advertising is permitted, our campaigns are intended to inform current consumers of our brands in their choice and encourage smokers of competing brands to switch to our products.”

The representative also said the company was disputing the decision, saying it lacked “any basis in law.”

The sad fact of the tobacco industry is that it has no shame. Our hope is that this time will be different.

Matthew Myers, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

As the United States and other wealthier nations have regulated tobacco sales, the industry has sought new consumers — young ones to replace those who have quit or died, according to public health advocates — in markets where governments are less aggressive about combating abuses.

“Emerging markets — that is where the success and sale of their product lives. They have basically taken the same values and concepts used with the Marlboro man — rugged individualism — and adapted it to a global market in the 2010 decade,” said Jesse Bragg, a spokesman for Corporate Accountability International, referring to the iconic figure in cigarette advertising who slowly faded away after the public in markets such as the U.S. became aware of the severe health risks posed by smoking.

Myers echoed that assessment, portraying the tobacco industry’s advertising maneuvers as particularly devious.

“We have seen this in largely low- and middle-income countries that don’t have laws that protect children from this and countries with high rates of smoking,” he said. “It’s going after the most vulnerable populations with the least number of protections.”

In the United States, tobacco advertising on television and radio has been banned since the 1970s. A legal settlement between industry executives and 46 states in 1998 put further restrictions on advertising, banishing it from billboards and prohibiting marketing to minors. In 2006, a 1,683-page opinion in United States vs. Philip Morris found that the company had fraudulently covered up the health risks associated with smoking and marketed its products to children for decades.

“The industry has been found to do those things collectively and individually for decades,” said Desmond Jenson, a staff attorney at the Public Health Law Center, who works on tobacco control policy. “It certainly is the way they’ve done business in the past.”

Globally, tobacco use is the No. 1 cause of preventable death, killing 6 million people annually, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which set standard guidelines governing the sale, distribution and advertisement of tobacco, has 177 countries on board, but enforcement is still a challenge for many nations, especially those with limited resources.

“The sad fact of the tobacco industry is that it has no shame,” Myers said. “Our hope is that this time will be different, but our clarion call is for governments to wake up and ban these tobacco industry tactics.”

Correction: The original version of the story incorrectly stated that a German court banned the advertising campaign in that country. It was the regional authorities.

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