The Tobacco lobby fights back with high decibel print campaign

MUMBAI:  Going by the almost half page print ads on major dailies issued by The Tobacco Institute of India claiming to enlighten readers on ‘the facts behind about pictorial warnings on cigarette packs’, one must know that one is witnessing a war in progress. Yes, a war whose trumpet was blown when the Health Ministry of India issued a strict mandate asking all tobacco manufacturers to cover 85 percent of a cigarette pack's surface with health warning from April 1 2016.

This left the major cigarette manufacturers in the country smouldering, and they soon met the government’s fire with a threat to shut down the manufacturing units on grounds of ‘ambiguity’ of the mandate. When the government did not entertain the letter written to the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare on 15 March, 2016, asking clarity on the mandate, the industry lobby group, Tobacco Institute Of India followed up their threat with action.

By April 1, ITC, which is India’s largest cigarette manufacturer and major stakeholder in TII, had shut down its factories, followed by  Godfrey Phillips, which is a partner of Philip Morris of the US, and VST Industries, according to the Tobacco Institute of India. Albeit, the move was worded differently by The Tobacco Institute of India –‘Fearing, potential violation of rules by continuing production, TII members have decided to shut their factories,’ was TII’s official stance on the matter read.

To add to this boycott of sorts, The Tobacco Institute of India has launched an intense campaign to challenge the reason behind implementing the 85 per cent pictorial warnings by the government. And they are doing so on two grounds -- firstly, TII claims the pictorial warnings are excessive and non-factual and secondly, they are futile in checking consumers from buying foreign brands that are smuggled into the country.

‘Gruesome and oversized pictorial warning will give boost to illegal cigarettes and adversely impact the livelihood of 4.6 crore Indians,’ one such ad by TII on Times City‘s Mumbai edition read.

In fact, the lobby estimated that this rage quit of the major players (shutdown of manufacturing units) had cost the industry Rs 350 crore per day in production turnover. Backed with facts and figures, the tobacco lobby left no stone unturned to make for itself a strong case against the government’s mandate, questioning the usefulness of the increased pictorial warnings.

It may be recalled that India witnessed a similar tussle between a big corporation and government in recent time, where the government emerged victorious with flying colours. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook had launched a high decibel campaign to influence public opinion against the government ruling that hindered operation of Free Basics in India.  In a similar strategy, Facebook had tried to appeal to the people of India about the prospect of bringing development and job creation, but the campaign was met with serious criticism as its motive was ‘oh so’ transparent to the public’s eye. The campaign failed to establish Facebook as a benevolent company that meant well for the people of India without any ulterior motive.

Several in the advertising industry believe that the tobacco lobby’s campaign is headed the same way, with the communication in the advertisement clearly giving away their motive, i.e., the withdrawal of the mandate, and undermines their ‘concern’ for the livelihood of the people involved in the tobacco Industry.

Some also feel that it is foolhardy on TII’s part to call the pictorial warnings unsuccessful or inefficient in regulating cigarette consumption in India and at the same time refusing to comply with it.

Few expect the government to answer back in a more strategic way, and instead of a counter campaign on print, get social influencers to publish articles on the harms of smoking cigarette.

This battle between regulatory authorities and the powerful Tobacco lobby isn’t restricted to India. The US saw a similar showdown between the large Tobacco Corporations. In the 1990s, the tobacco lobby engaged in a comprehensive and aggressive effort advancing its pro-tobacco agenda through campaigns to neutralise clean indoor air legislation.

The ‘Unswitchables’ campaign -- featuring a black eyed smoker claiming to rather fight than quit smoking created quite a stir, the government cracked down on the tobacco manufacturers with stricter legislature, ending their days of glory in the country. (Source: The Advertising Age Encyclopaedia of Advertising By John McDonough and, Karen Egolf)

Will we see a similar story panning out in India, or does the future holds something different for the Tobacco lobby in India, given the socio-economic differences in the country? With the major Tobacco corporations spending big on advertising dollars in campaigning against the government, one can’t help but wonder if the government will also fight back with a counter campaign of its own, or will sit back let the TII fume and smoke, until its fire fizzles out?

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