Controlling the Promotion of Smoking – a lesson in Industry Ingenuity



Quit Victoria and VicHealth Centre for Tobacco Control
Carlton, Victoria

Australia has an enviable reputation internationally regarding its legislation limiting tobacco advertising and promotion, particularly in the mainstream media.  This has led the tobacco industry to describe Australia’s retail environment as a “dark market”.1 There is no doubt that this approach, together with the development of other elements of a comprehensive tobacco control policy, has helped to bring downward pressure on tobacco consumption and prevalence.2 (Figure 1)  However, it would be naïve to believe that because tobacco advertisements in the print, broadcast and outdoor media are banned, that this has put an end to marketing activities by the tobacco industry. The industry is still actively promoting its products, particularly to young people. Two recent developments provide an opportunity for the Commonwealth Government to curb continuing, but less visible tobacco promotional activity -– the review of the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition (TAP) Act 1992 and the signing of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. 

Figure 1: Per capita smoking consumption & prevalence, 1974-2001

Tobacco advertising is particularly powerful with young people as it provides them with socially acceptable images of smoking. It normalises cigarette smoking and associates it with attractive role models and glamorous images.3 This promotion occurs without the manufacturers making clear the extent of harm the products cause and the risk of addiction.4 The impact is not just to encourage uptake, the US Surgeon General notes a number of ways in which tobacco advertising and promotion affects consumption:5

  • Encouraging children or young adults to experiment with tobacco products and initiate regular use;
  • Acting to reduce current tobacco users’ motivation to quit;
  • Acting to encourage former smokers to resume smoking; and
  • The ubiquity and familiarity of tobacco advertising and promotion may create an environment in which tobacco use is seen as not only acceptable, but likely to be without hazard.

To be effective, bans on tobacco advertising and promotion must be comprehensive, covering all media and uses of brand names and logos. Partial bans have limited or no effect, as the tobacco industry responds by moving their promotional dollar from the restricted media into areas where it is unrestricted.6 This also has the effect of undermining the cost effectiveness of economic policies intended to reduce overall consumption.7

Review of the TAP Act

Legislation restricting tobacco advertising has been in place for many years, commencing with a ban on tobacco advertising on television, cinema and radio in the mid-70s. The Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act 1992 set a national standard prohibiting print advertising, payment for product placement in films, and sponsorship with the exception of internationally significant events – which will cease in 2006. The review of the Act more than a decade after its introduction was established to “consider whether it has met its objective of limiting the exposure of the public to messages and images that may persuade them to start or continue smoking”.8

A measure of the scale of tobacco industry marketing in light of the current restrictions at both a state and federal level can be seen in the relationship between advertising agency Belgiovane Williams Mackay (BWM) and their client Imperial Tobacco in 2000. The account was worth $10 million and Imperial was a minor player in the market, controlling a mere 16.5% share. BWM’s advertising brief was for “below the line” activity including point of sale material, packaging, events management, e-commerce and relationship marketing.9

There are two types of tobacco promotion. One is by those directly involved in the tobacco trade, such as tobacco companies, retailers and advertising agencies – all who stand to benefit from the promotion of the product.  The other is promotion of tobacco products and smoking by others, such as broadcasters and filmmakers, who are not directly involved in the tobacco trade and do not stand to benefit from such portrayals.  Each of these forms of promotion are explored in more detail in the following outline.

Integrated Tobacco Marketing

The tobacco industry has shifted its focus from mass media advertising (print, television, cinema, radio, billboards), also called ‘above the line’, to ‘below the line’ marketing which covers other forms of promotion including direct marketing, events, price reductions, public relations activities, email promotions, displays at the point of sale and so on. For advertisers of most consumer products, a mix of both above and below the line marketing practices is utilised to provide multifaceted support for a brand.10  Below the line activities are considered economical, unique and attractive to reach the youth market.11

Event and Venue Promotions

Tobacco marketing through events such as dance parties and fashion parades has emerged as an important strategy to increase product appeal with youth. According to one promoter, the tobacco companies use marketing consultants to slip their products ‘under the radar and into hip events’.12 Examples of this are the UnLtd events which were used to promote Marlboro.  The advertising agency handling the Marlboro account, Leo Burnett, applied to register the UnLtd trademark and the website in August 2000.13 It promoted dance parties in major cities throughout Australia, featuring high profile international artists. Marlboro cigarettes were promoted exclusively at the venues, along with red white and blue theme colours, synonymous with the American image of the Marlboro brand. The UnLtd event co-sponsors were other brands targeting the youth demographic with products such as energy drinks, clothing and magazines.†

The development of a database was an important part of the marketing mix for research purposes and to establish linkages between patrons and the event organisers. After the event, patrons who had registered interest in promoting forthcoming events were emailed and offered complimentary and reduced price tickets in return for encouraging friends to attend these events. The names of the friends were then forwarded to the event organisers.  The cash incentives increased with the number of friends who attended the club event, for example if up to 20 people attended the organisers offered $150.14   Databases have been developed over many years through special offers linked to tobacco brands, particularly Philip Morris and the Alpine brand.15

Marketing at Point of Sale

Advertising where cigarettes are sold, including display of the tobacco pack itself, has a significant impact on members of the public. This is because this advertising is seen many times, particularly by children, in retail environments. As mainstream tobacco advertising has become more restricted, point of sale has become more important to the tobacco industry – “When above-the-line was banned, the retail environment became the front line for brand building, absorbing massive resources and being seen as the primary site for sustaining relationships with the consumer”.16  

Premiums and Value Added Promotions

Promotions such as gifts or a free packet of cigarettes with a tobacco purchase have been used in Australia. These have included lighters, shot glasses and pocketknives. Evidence suggests that these gifts may make young people more likely to take up smoking. Teenagers who can readily name a cigarette brand and who own a tobacco company-sponsored promotional item are more than twice as likely to become established smokers than those who do not.17

Promotions through the Pack

The cigarette pack, carrying the trademark, is the cornerstone of the industry’s marketing strategies to build rapport and brand image with existing and prospective customers. The tobacco companies use the pack as a communication tool in a number of different ways.  For example they have printed on the inside of flip-top packs, printed on or changed the colour of the foil inside the pack, subtly changed pack design to provide novelty and used pack and carton inserts and outserts – used for example to join two packs into a single “mini-carton” and display advertising imagery on these packs”.18

British American Tobacco (BAT) has adjusted the logo on their Benson and Hedges packs which were then launched through events in nightclubs.  A BAT employee said that the packs were created “for fun and to increase interest in the brand” and that they were “playing with the logo because we can’t do any advertising anymore”.19

Tobacco Marketing on the Internet

Exposure to tobacco marketing on the internet is an ever increasing problem. Many websites both in Australia and overseas offer tobacco products for sale and glamorise the products and their use. In the earlier example of the UnLtd events, the website has been used to provide services (promoting upcoming events) and also to host surveys for patrons around smoking and tobacco brand imagery.20 Websites have also been established on behalf of the tobacco industry to promote non-tobacco products, such as with Wavesnet which promoted fashion accessories and linked to other female orientated websites.21

Exemptions for Sport and Cultural Events

The exemption in the TAP Act allowing tobacco sponsorship of events “of international significance” will sunset in October 2006, after which no further events may take place. However, this has been an important tool for the tobacco industry. The Australian Formula One Grand Prix provides an opportunity to launch new brands in Australia, which occurred in 2003 when West was launched in the Victorian market by Imperial tobacco. The West McLaren Mercedes won the event this year, which would have provided further valuable exposure for the brand in newspapers and magazines at no cost. This was acknowledged in the trade magazine Australian Retail Tobacconist:

The Grand Prix victory is a major marketing coup for West, with the extensive exposure generating significant awareness and credibility for the West brand and product range in Australia… The new cigarettes will enable mainstream smokers in Australia to join the winning team and experience the adrenaline charged action of Formula One.22

Promotion through Depiction of Smoking

The tobacco industry and its advertising agencies are not the only organisations involved in promoting smoking.  Publishers, broadcasters and filmmakers also play a role by depicting smoking in various mediums. This is of concern because it exposes the public to imagery glamorising and normalising smoking in newspapers, film, on television and in popular magazines.

The increasingly common depiction of smoking in films plays a powerful role in enhancing the social acceptability of smoking.  These portrayals influence young people by making them more susceptible to this type of behaviour.23 Research has shown that over the decade 1988-97 images of tobacco smoking appeared in 85% of top box office films, with tobacco brand names appearing in one quarter – including 20% of those rated for children. Another study of films between 1990 and 1996 found that tobacco use in films is also out of step with actual smoking prevalence, 57% of leading characters smoked, compared with 14% of people with similar social backgrounds in the general population.24

Impact of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)

The FCTC is the world’s first public health treaty and contains policies proven to reduce tobacco-related illness and death. It commits governments to action – by signing the convention they declare their intention to meet the specified minimum standards. The treaty will become binding when 40 countries ratify it. Article 13 on tobacco advertising states: “Governments shall, within five years, ban all tobacco advertising promotion and sponsorship. Countries whose constitution does not allow a ban shall restrict all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship”.25

Given that much tobacco advertising comes through the broadcast of tobacco sponsored events from overseas and internet advertising, as domestic laws become more restrictive the industry will get around these laws by exploiting weaker laws in other jurisdictions. It is important that Australia plays a leading role by ratifying the FCTC and in developing protocols in relation to tobacco promotion.

Recommendations of the Submission to the Review of the TAP Act

The major recommendations that health groups have advocated include:

  • A broader definition of tobacco advertisement to ensure that it covers the type of activity that the tobacco industry is increasingly utilising. This would include guerilla marketing; event and venue marketing; point of sale marketing; promotions using the cigarette pack; marketing on the internet; direct marketing and use of premiums.  Where communication is absolutely required, it should be limited to the provision of factual information about price, availability and inherent characteristics of products.
  • The promotion of tobacco products and smoking by others, including broadcasters, who do not benefit from the promotion needs to be approached in a different way.  Public health concerns need to be balanced with other important values such as freedom of expression.  Amendments to sections covering “accidental and incidental” promotion and depiction of smoking are suggested, as well as recommendations to address smoking in films.
  • Introduction of penalties that are of sufficient size to take into account the impact of the marketing and the incentive of the tobacco industry to do all it can to promote its products.
  • Vigorous enforcement of the legislation together with the allocation of adequate resources in order for this to occur.
  • Ratification of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and a lead role in the development of protocols in those areas where international cooperation is needed to prevent activities outside Australia which weaken the capacity of the TAP Act to achieve its objectives.


The Commonwealth should establish strong, unambiguous laws in relation to all areas of promotion.  It is imperative that it does not leave open the possibility of weaker regulation in certain states and territories than the Commonwealth itself can achieve. This would result in different standards in different jurisdictions, depending on their location in a particular state or territory.

The future of tobacco advertising and promotion will depend, to a large extent, on the outcomes of the review of the TAP Act.  The examples outlined show how the tobacco industry promotes tobacco use in a “dark market”. The lessons from previous decades show that bans on tobacco advertising do work, however the lessons provided by the last 10 years show that we can’t approach this issue in a piecemeal fashion; to be effective restrictions must be truly comprehensive.


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