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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 12:52 GMT
Has the tobacco ad ban worked?
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine

Twelve months ago, amid much fanfare from ministers, tobacco advertising was banned in the UK.

Then Health Secretary Alan Milburn said he hoped outlawing adverts in the press and at poster sites would save up to 3,000 lives a year.

Student bar
Is a public smoking ban next?
"Advertising works, smoking kills. Today we are breaking the link between the two," said Mr Milburn, with a flourish.

But 12 months later, evidence suggests people in the UK are smoking just as much as before.

According to figures from Imperial Tobacco, the UK "duty-paid" cigarette market has remained fairly static at about 55bn cigarettes a year.

Self-righteousness

The figures are not disputed by the Department of Health, which says the advertising ban should be viewed in the context of a wider assault on smoking.

"It has been estimated that a comprehensive ban would reduce consumption and prevalence over time by 2.5%.

Our customers do feel as if they are under siege
Imperial Tobacco
"This reduction is expected in the long term, after a short lag while the effects of advertising wear off," a DoH spokesman says.

The government spent 31m last year on anti-smoking campaigns, he adds.

Amanda Sandford, of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) says the picture is clouded by the fact that point- of-sale material is still allowed - for the time being - and motor racing sponsorship continues.

But that has not prevented a faint whiff of self-righteousness - mixed with the usual stale tobacco - from the cigarette companies.

"As the industry said before the ban, in mature markets such as tobacco, advertising is about brand share not increased consumption.

"The evidence since the ban supports this. Total consumption trends have not changed, and the number of people smoking is broadly flat," says Gill Silverman, of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association.

Market share

Initial fears that the tobacco industry would try every trick in the book to get round a ban have also proved unfounded, according to ASH.

At the same time, the companies have not been idle.

Formula One sponsorship will soon be outlawed in Europe
Imperial Tobacco, maker of Embassy Regal and Superkings, has seen its UK market share increase over the past 12 months to its highest level in 20 years.

It has been boasting in the trade press of its success with point-of-sale material, the colourful counter displays designed to lure customers to its brands.

It has also continued to carry out market research and hold focus groups.

The main message that has come through, according to Alex Parsons, head of media at Imperial Tobacco, is that smokers are "quite angry" about the new, larger health warnings on packs.

"Our customers do feel as if they are under siege, but they said it would not affect their smoking habits."

Formula One

And the point of all this research?

"We would still hope to be able to position our brands in a way that would draw customers. We want people to smoke our brands," says Mr Parsons.

Gallaher, which makes Silk Cut and Benson and Hedges, is less bullish about its marketing efforts.

But it has just signed a new sponsorship deal with the Jordan formula one team, despite the fact that tobacco sponsorship will be outlawed by the EU in 2006.

Philip Morris, the makers of Marlboro, hit the headlines late last year when it said was considering attaching leaflets warning people of the dangers of smoking to packs.

The company says it is attempting to be more responsible.

'Rite of passage'

The idea that Philip Morris is being upfront about the health risks is, ASH argues, likely to appeal to the company's core market of young, metropolitan smokers.

Young people think they know the risks of smoking already, but what they really hate is having the wool pulled over their eyes by a multinational, the campaigners argue.

British Heart Foundation ad
The government has stepped up its anti-smoking campaign
Industry sponsored health warnings are also a useful insurance policy against future litigation.

Gallaher has its own anti-youth smoking initiative, which includes proof-of-age cards.

Like all the tobacco companies, it is at pains to stress that smoking is an "adult choice", conveniently ignoring research which suggests 80% of smokers start before they are 18.

Also, critics argue, proof-of-age schemes reinforce the idea of starting smoking as a "rite of passage" to adulthood.

Corporate pariahs

"We are damned if we do, and damned if we don't," says Gallaher's Michelle McKeown, her exasperation perhaps hinting at the real reason why the industry fought so hard against an advertising ban.

It may have had little effect on overall consumption levels, and made it slightly more difficult to launch new products. But it has, arguably, turned the cigarette companies into the ultimate corporate pariahs.

They are making the only legally available product you are not allowed to advertise - and that makes them feel very uncomfortable.

Shot in the arm

Like the office workers forced on to the pavement to indulge their smoking habit, they have effectively been shut out of polite society.

"It is a legal product that is enjoyed by millions of adults.

"Like any other FMCG [fast moving consumer goods] company, we feel strongly that we should be able to communicate with our customers about the product we sell," says Alex Parsons, of Imperial.

The other main effect of the ad ban is that it has given a shot in the arm to the anti-smoking lobby.

After years of trench warfare, the health campaigners, and their friends in government, feel they have finally got the industry on the run.

So while the industry may be heaving a sigh of relief, campaigners' attention is turning to the next battle - getting a ban on smoking in bars and other public places.




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