In the 1950s, more than half the U.S. population smoked. Now that number is down to just 21 percent of adults. As the domestic cigarette market shrinks, tobacco companies are taking their business to the developing world, where they don't have to deal with pesky things like advocacy groups that oppose industry activity, smoking bans, or a populace that is aware of the health hazards of smoking.
Now Philip Morris (PM) is playing hardball in lesser-developed countries to try and preserve their ability to market cigarettes however they want. On February 19, PM filed a lawsuit against Uruguay to try and force that country to withdraw a new law requiring 80 percent of each side of cigarette packs show graphic images depicting the health effects of smoking.
Laws requiring large, pictorial graphic warning labels on cigarette packs are not new. Canada was the first to implement them, starting in 2000. Now 32 countries and the European Union require them. Uruguay, in fact, already had a law requiring half of each side of cigarette packs to contain health warnings. They just wanted to make the pictures a little bigger. That was all it took to get Philip Morris to slap them with a lawsuit.
So why is Philip Morris coming down like a ton of bricks on less developed countries like this? Because as cigarette makers lose their markets in the developed world, they need poorer and less-educated populations to keep expanding their business. That means moving into developing countries, and how they market cigarettes there is often egregiously repugnant.
Cigarette Marketing Strategies in Foreign Countries
Cigarette companies market their products quite differently in foreign countries than they do in the U.S. They've also learned lessons from their past experiences in the U.S. that they apply to help create business other countries.
For example, an undated British American Tobacco marketing plan discusses "Project Z," in which the company planned to sell single cigarettes in Central American countries, as a way to keep poverty-stricken smokers addicted to nicotine. The document says that selling cigarettes one by one will help keep poor smokers "within the habit."
Leveraging Fear as a Marketing Tool
Tobacco companies learned that "health scares" tend to generate new markets for brands people think are safer. They apply this knowledge to actually stimulate health fear among smokers to drive people to buy "low tar" brands. For example, in 1983, Brown & Williamson implemented Project Lodestar in Kuwait, to generate health fears among Kuwaiti smokers to increase sales of their "light" brands in Kuwait. In describing Project Lodestar, B&W lamented that "The lack of growth in [the low tar and nicotine] segment, especially in developing countries, has seriously affected the potential of key BWIT brands..." Project Lodestar's objective was to "Stimulate concern among less aware consumers..." Another Lodestar tactic involved snookering Kuwaiti anti-tobacco groups into helping B&W "stimulate" this "concern":
"Lobby [the Kuwaiti Anti-Smoking] Society to emphasize low delivery brand alternatives for concerned smokers who do not want to quit smoking..."
Philip Morris held the people of Pakistan in similar regard. A 1990 Philip Morris report shows that Pakistani smokers' growing fears and anxieties about health represented little more than a "market opportunity" for PM. In countries where information about the health effects of smoking is scarce, cigarette makers anticipate that, as smokers find out what smoking can do to them, health anxieties will eventually increase, and they start positioning their brands to cash in on those fears.
The More Desperate the Country, the Better the Cigarette Market
Tobacco companies also 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. The governments and medical establishments in such countries tend to follow suit. A 1980 Philip Morris 5-year plan says,
Smoking and Health is not yet considered to be a crucial issue by the Egyptian Tobacco Industry ... and health is not an issue among the general Egyptian populace who are more concerned with day-to-day survival and consider smoking to be one of their few pleasures in life. The health question ... is not considered to be a priority by the [Egyptian] medical profession ...
Poorer Governments are Friendlier
Poorer governments also tend to be more favorable towards tobacco companies, since they are more heavily dependent on tobacco taxes for income, and thus less apt to restrict tobacco marketing, use and advertising. PM wrote,
In general, little official governmental attention has been paid to smoking and health in Africa and the African Health Ministers, where they exist, have not taken a strong stand on this issue. This is in large part because most [African] governments are preoccupied by other priorities (economic and social development), and because cigarette advertising and tax revenues are important to the African economies. Therefore, governments are not inclined to impose restrictions which might jeopardize this income.
High Illiteracy Rates are Good for Business
A high illiteracy rate is also important to marketing cigarettes because it means a populace that relies less on printed health information, which benefits the tobacco companies. It also clarifies why tobacco companies particularly dislike the use of pictorial health warnings in developing countries: illiterate people will understand them. The following passage from a PM document discusses the high rate of illiteracy in Nigeria, and how health information from the "outside" was starting to affect "the upper class," which presumably had higher literacy rates than the general population:
As not less than seventy percent of the Nigerian population is illiterate, Nigerians form their opinions on smoking and health almost exclusively on the basis of rumor and superstition. The population is becoming more aware of the allegations against smoking largely because of press coverage from outside reports. The prevalent attitude in model developed countries has some impact on the upper class...
Pictorial Warnings Work, and are Necessary
Studies show that pictorial warning labels on cigarette packs are highly effective at conveying health information and reducing smoking, especially in developing countries. It is testament to the power of the American tobacco lobby that we don't have them yet in the U.S., and that we are running so far behind other nations in this regard. After all, Australia, Canada, Mexico, India, Great Britain and the European Union have them, among others. I strongly support Uruguay and other countries fighting to inform their people about the health hazards of smoking and protect their populations from tobacco industry aggression, and I support their struggles -- and ours here on this country -- to better inform people about the tobacco industry's predatory marketing.