How Marlboro Used a Network of Young Smokers to Skirt the Laws Against Tobacco Promotion

17 January 2016

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015, which amended the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000, was passed in the winter session of the parliament in December 2015, and came into effect on 15 January 2016. The act allows juveniles between the ages of 16 and 18 years, charged with heinous crimes, to be tried as adults. It was passed amidst the public outcry that followed the release of the juvenile accused of the rape of Jyoti Kumar Pandey in 2012, and was widely criticised for being passed in haste.

The act also makes it illegal to serve children any tobacco products, alcohol, narcotic drugs, and psychotropic substances. The amendments make these offenses punishable by upto seven years in jail and a fine of upto one lakh rupees. The new law is the latest addition to many laws that govern tobacco products and their sale in India. Tobacco is one of the most regulated industries in the country, and promotion and advertisement of tobacco products is illegal. The strict laws make it harder for tobacco companies to access the market, putting them perpetually on the lookout for new ways to reach new customers. In this excerpt from her September 2014 story, Smokescreen, Nikita Saxena investigates how Marlboro, an international brand of cigarettes manufactured by the Philip Morris company, skirts the laws by leveraging a network of young smokers to promote their product, and offers these “brand ambassadors” considerable inducements to get their friends and peers to smoke with them.

Marlboro’s youth marketing programme, of which the connectors were a part, is something of an industry secret. It is little covered in the media, even though the workings of the brand and the entire tobacco industry are, at least notionally, open to public scrutiny. The Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act of 2003 is one of the most comprehensive laws ever enacted by the Indian government to check tobacco consumption. The COTPA prohibits smoking in public places, and the sale of tobacco products to minors; it also mandates, among other things, pictorial warnings on cigarette packs. Arguably its most formidable provision is Section 5, which prohibits almost all advertising or promotion of tobacco products.

This strict legal intolerance for tobacco promotion has put the industry perpetually on the lookout for ways it can still reach new consumers. The brand ambassador programme was one such method, helping bring Marlboro to the attention of young, hip smokers. And, for the duration of their participation, it changed the lives of the ambassadors themselves, who were offered considerable inducements to get their friends and peers to smoke with them. The secrecy that still shrouds the programme was effected in spite of its scale; for the first two years, Philip Morris India outsourced the logistics entirely to a Delhi-based company, Envisage Marketing and HR Solutions. In 2011, as the programme grew in scope and expense, it was handed over to a division of the advertising firm Leo Burnett India, the local chapter of the famous agency that designed the iconic “Marlboro Man” half a century ago.

Over the course of eight months, I spoke to over a dozen people who had participated in or helped organise the programme. I also met a number of lawyers and public-health activists battling the tobacco industry, and trying to counteract young Indians’ growing dependency on tobacco products, with all the health problems it entails. Activists told me India’s anti-tobacco legislation is as comprehensive as it is byzantine; but, they also pointed out, the government has largely failed to implement the laws in any sustained way. Several activists cast doubts on the legality of the programme when they heard of it. Repeated requests for clarification on the programme’s legal status from the companies involved produced either evasive answers, or outright denials of having done any wrong. One senior Philip Morris India official, who tried to convince me that this story was not worth my time, was happy to inform me that there were much larger violations of the law in the Indian tobacco industry—an indirect admission that the programme could not be said to obey the spirit of the law.

Nikita Saxena is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: youth ambassadors Juvenile Justice Marlboro Delhi University Smoking