Monday, November 28, 2011

Smoke and mirrors - cigarette adverts by another name

Dear Newspaper Readers,
It’s amazing how papers that have made their names to a large extent on their investigative abilities have two types of morality. There’s one for advertisers and another one for non-advertisers.
         Non-advertisers accused of all kinds of suspect activities will get nailed to the wall, but paying customers are immune from this kind of treatment.
         Is this what they call journalistic licence? Is advertising allowed to have more flexible morals than the rest of the paper? Is this what they mean when they say, money talks?
        Both the Johannesburg based Sunday Times and the Mail and Guardian (M&G) have greedily carried huge cigarette advertisements from British American Tobacco (BAT). In the M&G it was a whole page and in the Sunday Times, which has a larger format, it took up half a page.  
         These probably raked in a total of close to half a million bucks for these papers.
         What’s wrong with that you might ask? Nothing much except the suspect part was that BAT was using smoke and mirrors to get round the South African law that banns the advertising of tobacco products.
What was even more disturbing was that the papers were quite prepared to go along with this without question, even though another publication had earlier cast doubt on the veracity of similar adverting.
Big hearted BAT was suddenly concerned that illegal cigarettes were costing the country over R3 billion a year in lost tax revenue. This is what it told the 3.6 –million people who read these two national publications each week.
That’s the equivalent of the cost of more than 44 000 new policemen and 60 000 new homes, the adverts claimed
It deliberately failed to mention the cost to the nation of treating the millions of people, including policemen, whose health is affected or who die through smoking.   

The main thrust of the advertisements was that smuggled cigarettes bring crime syndicates into your neighbourhood.
So BAT and the papers that support this campaign believe that it’s better to die a slow lingering death from lung cancer or some other nicotine induced illness than to have bullets whizzing around your street. If I had a choice I think I would rather take my chances in that crime riddled neighbourhood that BAT is so worried about.
Earlier this year BAT was flying higher with scare tactics that were even more ridiculous. It had billboards on major highways with messages like DANGER-Buying illegal cigarettes may fund hijackers and armed robberies.
Complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and it ordered BAT to pull the ads because there was no proof that contraband cigarettes lead to violent crime. The Authority conveniently ducked the issue of whether or not this was an illegal means of adverting cigarettes.
In its issue of July this year Noseweek, the News you’re not suppose to know magazine, attacked this type of advertising saying, Tobacco companies are blowing rings around the law with subtle advertising and smuggling tricks.
How right it was. And the Government can’t be fagged to do anything while lives continue to go up in smoke.
            Significantly the magazine quoted from a submission made to the World Health Organisation by a group called Action on Smoking & Health Canada. It said that a company that does not ensure its brands are smuggled risks losing market share to those that do. The evidence shows that companies treat smuggling as just another distribution channel and manage it through third parties where they control the price and availability of their products.
        And low and behold, one of the companies that does this, the group claimed, is none other than our public spirited BAT.
        So BAT if you are so worried about the distribution of illegal smokes why don’t you do the decent thing and STOP making cigarettes altogether.
         That way you will eradicate the gun runners, the hijackers, the gangsters and all the other criminals and contribute enormously to the general health of the nation and we can all live happily ever afterwards.
         Jon, a Non-smoker of Note, Consumer Watchdog and Poor Man’s Press Ombudsman 

P.S. I forgot to mention that BAT had this comforting, understatement at the end of its ads, Smoking has health implications.

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