Tobacco-related diseases are the single most important cause of preventable deaths in the world. It is projected that tobacco use will cause 8.4 million deaths by 2020, 70% of which will occur in developing countries, where about 900 million smokers live.
Based on the findings of a new study published in the bulletin of the World Health Organization, this is the reason why tobacco companies know that people in poor countries are so consumed with their basic survival needs that they tend to pay less attention to smoking and health issues. As research evidence has accumulated over time, the relationships between the marketing activities of tobacco companies and the use of tobacco have become clear.
The countries included in the analysis are very diverse in terms of both economics and culture. According to the World Bank’s 2006 classification, three of the countries selected – Canada, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates – were high-income, seven – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Malaysia, Poland, South Africa and Turkey – were upper-middle-income, three – China, Colombia and the Islamic Republic of Iran – were lower-middle-income – and three – India, Pakistan and Zimbabwe – were low-income. Between 2009 and 2012, the researchers of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, compared the series of tobacco advertisements and outlets that offered tobacco products across the above countries since 2005, when they signed up to the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). An international treaty called for a comprehensive ban on all tobacco marketing in order to reduce tobacco use.
The researcher also interviewed nearly 12,000 people, who were asked if they had seen any tobacco marketing in the media, including on television, radio, posters, signage, online, in print or in the cinema, in the previous six months. The study found that the tobacco companies are taking their business to the developing world. In India, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, where smoke-free laws are not strictly implemented - if they even exist at all - the population is not aware of the health hazards of smoking, as they don't have to deal with advocacy groups that oppose industry activity.
The tobacco industry’s sales are descending in high-income countries, and so its future profitability depends on getting young people to smoke especially in low-income countries. Our investigation reveals the extent of its effort to do so
The study also shows similar levels of exposure to non-traditional marketing across all countries’ income groups. This indicates that the tobacco industry may still be finding creative as well as less regulated forms of marketing to promote its products. In some countries, tobacco companies coopted prominent political figures to lobby for their cause. Many times they hired scientists to discredit scientific studies showing that smoking and secondhand smoke led to serious disease and death.
However, the research has some limitations. Firstly, the countries studied are not necessarily representative of low, middle and high income countries globally. Secondly, the analyst also admitted that the main tobacco company in two of the three lower middle income countries, for example China - home to more smokers than any other country - is state owned. This means that tobacco marketing remains ubiquitous even in the state-owned monopolies, where traditionally smoke companies do not market their products aggressively, because the lack of competition renders this unnecessary.
In the midst of all this gloom, the report called for stronger enforcement of the restrictions. “Only with the disappearance of advertising will tobacco companies lose some of their infective power, especially in the developing world”.