Time to lay the Marlboro Man to rest

Updated: 2013-05-31 07:14

By Michael O'Leary (China Daily)

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In the United States, the Marlboro Man is one of the most enduring advertising images of the 20th century. The Marlboro Man in his various incarnations - the cowboy being the most famous - was masculine, strong, and very "cool". The Marlboro Man campaign was phenomenally successful: By the time the campaign ended in the US almost 50 years later, Marlboro had become one of the best-selling cigarette brands of all time.

The Marlboro Man advertising campaign demonstrates why the theme of this year's World No Tobacco Day - banning tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship - is so important. In conveying an image of cigarette smoking as glamorous and desirable, the Marlboro Man campaign was very successful in encouraging people to smoke.

Advertising and promotion of tobacco link tobacco consumption with success, fun, and other attractive qualities. Advertising and marketing of tobacco products, as well as indirect promotion, including the sponsoring of music and sports events, help create an environment where smoking is seen as socially acceptable, or "normal".

Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship foster an illusion that tobacco is just like other readily available consumer products. But the reality is tobacco is a lethal product. It kills up to half of its regular users. Indeed, some of the actors who appeared in the Marlboro Man advertisements are themselves reported to have died from smoking-related diseases.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which China ratified in 2005, requires a comprehensive ban of all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Evidence from around the world shows that comprehensive marketing bans lead to fewer people starting and continuing to smoke. Comprehensive bans on all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship are therefore especially important for protecting young people from the harms of tobacco. Even brief exposure to tobacco marketing can influence adolescents.

Banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce demand for tobacco products. It is therefore one of the most cost-effective measures governments can take to reduce demand for tobacco products, and in doing so, protect the health of their populations.

In China, the Advertising Law bans the advertising of tobacco products in the mass media, including the radio, movies, TV, newspapers and magazines, as well as in public places such as waiting rooms, theaters, conference halls and sports centers. However, analysis conducted by WHO for the 2011 Global Report on the Tobacco Epidemic found that these advertising bans are not always complied with.

Further, outdoor advertising of tobacco products, including on billboards, is not banned. Point of sale and Internet advertising of tobacco products is also allowed. New media including micro blogs are also beyond the scope of the existing Advertising Law. And tobacco products are also sometimes promoted through indirect forms of advertising and marketing, such as sponsorship of organizations and events, as well as "brand stretching" the use of tobacco brand names on non-tobacco merchandise or services.

According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey conducted in China in 2010, 19.6 percent - or one in five adults - reported that they had noticed tobacco advertising, promotions or sponsorships via the media or in public places during the 30 days prior to the survey. Worryingly, nearly three in 10 young people aged 15 to 24 - 27.5 percent - reported noticing tobacco advertising, promotions or sponsorships.

Other studies have also shown very high levels of exposure to indirect promotion of cigarette smoking through the entertainment media in China; according to the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project, 81 percent of smokers and 85 percent of non-smokers report having seen people smoking in the entertainment media "often" or "once in a while".

China is not alone in needing to strengthen its existing restrictions on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, as well as their enforcement.

Despite the effectiveness of comprehensive bans, WHO estimates that only 6 percent of the world's population was fully protected from exposure to the tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship in 2010.

Some important steps toward strengthening restrictions on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship in China have been taken in recent years. In addition to the direct advertising ban, in February 2011, the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV announced strict controls on the portrayal of smoking in movies and TV serials.

In December 2012, the government issued the China National Tobacco Control Plan 2012-15, which includes a strong commitment to strengthening existing bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

The China National Tobacco Control Plan also includes the ambitious target of reducing the adult smoking rate from the 2010 rate of 28.1 percent to 25 percent in 2015, and an even more ambitious target for reducing the youth smoking rate, from 11.5 percent to below 7.5 percent in 2015.

These targets will only be achieved through the implementation of strong policies to reduce demand for tobacco, including comprehensive bans on all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. But when they are, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives will be saved.

So on World No Tobacco Day 2013, its time to consign all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, including the Marlboro Man, to history, for good.

The author is the World Health Organization's representative in China.

(China Daily USA 05/31/2013 page15)