A smoking controversy

Published : Jul 01, 2005 00:00 IST

The Union Health Ministry's announcement that it will prohibit all images of smoking in Indian films and on television from August 1 triggers an intense debate.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

A CELEBRATED monthly magazine recently published a living room snippet about new research in the United States on movies having "a powerful effect" on hormone levels "with major gender differences". Some films such as The Bridges of Madison County made people, especially women, calm and friendly; others, such as Godfather II, made men aggressive. The ideal movie for a passion-filled evening, the psychologist who studied the hormone levels of selected audiences is reported to have said, would be "one that contains romance and adventure". The article lists a couple of options "to put you in the mood", among them, the 2003 movie Pirates of the Caribbean - "Men love the action; women love [actor] Johnny Depp," the magazine said.

That films have an unfailing effect on people has long been realised, but, according to critics, only through "inconclusive studies that fail to take into account other factors". Heroes and heroines are forever put in the dock for ensnaring "the monkey in the man", making people, especially the youth, walk, talk, dress, dance and act like them or the characters they portray. By smoking on screen, they have also been accused for long of finding new recruits for the big tobacco companies whose staple are the ever-growing number of customers in the "impressionable years".

Now, following a 2003 study on the portrayal of tobacco in Indian cinema, "Bollywood: Victim or Ally", conducted by the Tobacco Free Initiative of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Union Health Ministry has announced that it will prohibit all images of smoking in Indian films and television from August 1. It will ban shots showing tobacco products, their brand names and logos. Films produced before the ban will have to run a scroll of legible black-on-white health warnings across the bottom of the screen when such scenes are being shown. Foreign movies and television serials are to have offending images and brand names electronically masked.

Films depicting tobacco smoke, logos and legends may soon become a bore for Indian audiences.

India is a signatory to the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the international treaty signed by member-states of the United Nations and the European Community that requires them to restrict advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products and outlaw smoking in public places. In 2004, the government banned smoking in public places, tobacco advertising and sponsorship of sporting events by tobacco companies.

The proposed ban in films has served more or less as a hormone-activator, with varying effects on affected groups: it has calmed the shrill anti-tobacco campaigners who described it as a "sensible step", but it has made the majority in the movie industry furious and aggressive. Says director Mahesh Bhatt: "It is unblinking arrogance... It (the ban) is a dreadful recall of the Emergency when we were told that all violence needed to be reigned in and we could only show five action scenes and that too only of 90 feet each. When will the government realise that this is the age of enlightenment? You need to make the industry participate in decisions. You cannot talk down and dictate to us. We are not indifferent or apathetic to social problems."

In a press note issued in Mumbai, the Film and Television Producers Guild of India Ltd. said that "no film, till date, has stooped to the depths of immorality by glorifying social evils like smoking and drinking" and that the proposed ban was based on the "irrational notion that usage of cigarettes in films or serials is tantamount to encouraging smoking amongst the rational audiences of this country."

But tobacco continues to kill and films have a crucial role in promoting its use, says the WHO. It kills 8,00,000 Indians every year, about 2,200 people a day, 90 in an hour, according to the world health body.

With a population of one billion and nearly 250 million tobacco users, India is a major target for tobacco companies, which are ever trying to get more and more smokers. In terms of emerging markets in the developing world that are making the biggest contribution to their sales (after Brazil), India offers the biggest hope to tobacco giants, with only 14 per cent of Indian tobacco users being cigarette smokers. As many as 199.2 million people are between the ages of 15 and 24, and this group is projected to grow to 231 million by 2013.

The survival trick of Big Tobacco is to get a lot of these young men and women to light a cigarette the first few times - and thus get them hooked. If it fails to do that, Big Tobacco will have to decline and die, "just as a population which does not give birth will eventually dwindle", as an international cigarette maker described it in a 1984 internal document.

Already, five million children in India under the age of 15 are hooked on tobacco, or, precisely, on nicotine, considered as addictive a drug as cocaine and heroin. Each day, 55,000 children start using tobacco, the WHO report says.

One of the leading causes of preventable deaths in India today - heart disease, loss of breathing capacity (emphysema) and cancer - which cost the country $5.5 billion in 1999, is smoking. In contrast, the nationwide sales revenue of all tobacco products for that year was $4.88 billion. Tobacco-related diseases cost the country $2.7 billion through the loss of productivity alone.

But the tobacco companies will have to try and rope in thousands of young adults - "the only source of replacing smokers" - continuously in order to survive against increasing pressure from a growing body of anti-tobacco campaigners, non-governmental organisations, public health experts, researchers, international organisations and governments, market pressures and declining tobacco use caused by increased awareness.

Big Tobacco's penchant for young customers and to wish away the harmful effects of tobacco addiction has been proved time and again the world over, most strikingly by the once-secret documents made public by the anti-tobacco lobby in the U.S. in the mid-1990s, an event that became a landmark in the anti-tobacco battles in that country.

In a revealing article "How the tobacco industry built its relationship with Hollywood", based on a review of these documents, Prof. Stanton A. Glantz, the American Smoke Free Movies campaigner and anti-tobacco activist, and his co-author, describe how even 40 years ago the tobacco industry knew that nicotine was an addictive substance and that it caused cancer, and yet it withheld this information from the public. The article also talks about how the industry understood and worked secretly and deliberately for the promotion of tobacco through films and television and leading actors, knowing fully its impact on potential smokers.

The article quotes excerpts from several documents, among them a 1989 Philip Morris marketing plan which said: "We believe that most of the strong, positive images for cigarettes and smoking are created by cinema and television. We have seen the heroes smoking in Wall Street, Crocodile Dundee and Roger Rabbit. Mickey Rourkey, Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn are forever seen, both on and off the screen, with a lighted cigarette. It is reasonable to assume that films and personalities have more influence on consumers than a static poster of the letters from a B&H (Benson and Hedges) pack hung on a washing line under a dark and stormy sky. If branded cigarette advertising is to take full advantage of these images, it has to do more than simply achieve package recognition - it has to feed off and exploit the image source."

Another document, a draft speech prepared for the president of Philip Morris International to be read at a company international meeting, says: "Recently, anti-smoking groups have also had some early successes at eroding the social acceptability of smoking. Smoking is being positioned as an unfashionable, as well as unhealthy, custom. We must use every creative means at our disposal to reverse this destructive trend. I do feel heartened at the increasing number of occasions when I go to a movie and see a pack of cigarette in the hands of the leading lady. This is in sharp contrast to the state of affairs just a few years ago when cigarettes rarely showed up in cinema. We must continue to exploit new opportunities to get cigarettes on screen and into the hands of smokers."

A 1981 memo from a researcher from the same company (quoted elsewhere) says: "Today's teenager is tomorrow's potential regular customer, and the overwhelming majority of smokers first begin to smoke while still in their teens.... The smoking patterns of teenagers are particularly important to Philip Morris."

The controversial publication of the secret memos of tobacco companies proved without doubt how international tobacco companies had deliberately tended a "special relationship" with the movie industry (in the U.S.) since the 1930s and "promoted positive portrayals of smoking in films, supplied free cigarettes to Hollywood celebrities to encourage publicity and brand loyalty on screen, and paid cash to place their brands in specific movies without audiences coming to know of it."

ALL this seems to have happened in India, too, but on a much smaller scale. Perhaps Indian cinema in many instances in the early years unwittingly glamorised tobacco usage, the WHO report says. But now, when consistent anti-tobacco protests and litigation are forcing Big Tobacco to seek greener pastures, there are signs that the Indian film industry may become a willing partner, the report says.

Most Indian tobacco firms are extensions of international tobacco giants and have followed more or less the same techniques for promoting their brands in India. Indian Tobacco Company (ITC), which controls 78 per cent of the Indian cigarette market, is a subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT). The Philip Morris affiliate, Godfrey Philips India (GPI) Ltd., is the second largest cigarette manufacturer in India. In the other major player, Vazir Sultan Tobacco Ltd. (VST), BAT holds a minority share.

Significantly, in early 2004, tobacco advertising contributed Rs.3,000 million every year to the Rs.80,000-million Indian advertising industry, before the ban on tobacco advertising was introduced. A recent WHO document "Battle For Tobacco Control - The Indian Experience" estimates that in the one year after the ban was imposed this figure actually went up to around Rs.3,500 million. Never to be outdone by the ban, tobacco companies innovated their advertising and promotional techniques, sponsoring cricket matches, fashion and music shows, instituting bravery awards, increasingly investing in non-tobacco products that bore the same brand name as their popular tobacco product, and even launching mini cigarettes to hook new smokers and encourage them "to move up to a more expensive brand".

The "Bollywood: Victim or Ally" report found that the Indian movie machine, which produces over 900 films a year in eight languages and targets an estimated 250 million youngsters in India alone, is being used effectively by or is a willing victim of the tobacco industry to provide business-boosting, subliminal lifestyle cues to the youth - about smoking as a "normal activity" associated with rebellion, independence, self-assertion, machismo, fashion, romance, power, sex, glamour, celebration and even the language of the dons.

Contrary to what is believed, the portrayal of tobacco consumption in Indian cinema is at a high, prevalent in 76 per cent of the films reviewed from 1991 to 2002. Cigarettes accounted for 72 per cent of all smoking incidents depicted during that period.

The report said that its findings break other "myths" too: that tobacco consumption is portrayed mostly to underline the negative traits of a character (and hence do not influence the youth); that youth behaviour is not influenced by mainstream movies; that films do not glamorise cigarette smoking; and that smoking is used to project realism. On the contrary, it said, both in Hindi and South Indian films, more and more "good guy" characters are smoking. The focus group study findings, the report said, showed that there was a strong linkage between films and youth behaviour and that smoking incidents in movies were much higher than actual cigarette consumption among the Indian population.

WHO spokesperson Harsaran Pandey told Frontline that as an agency concerned with the health of citizens, the WHO considers the proposed ban as "one of the steps in the right direction". "It is not an issue of taste, returns or creative freedom. It is an issue of health. The WHO has always held that tobacco advertising harms young people and India being a signatory to the WHO FCTC, advertising tobacco products is illegal. The WHO study has shown that smoking in films is an insidious form of advertising as people, especially the youth, tend to emulate their film idols."

The proposed ban on smoking in films comes at a time when the Indian film industry, "under pressure to compete with Hollywood productions, changing audience tastes and constantly rising costs", is trying to find additional revenue. For the first time, brand placements have made their appearance prominently with regard to soft drinks and vehicles. Most producers are, unlike in the West, only warming up to the idea of brand placements from the tobacco industry.

The demand is rising that instead of placing curbs on the portrayal of smoking in films, the government should target the tobacco industry itself if it is so concerned about the health of its citizens. Director Shyam Benegal, who described the ban as the handiwork of "lazy minds", told Frontline: "If you want to stop (people from) smoking, the way to do it is to curb the tobacco industry and positively shift the focus to the people who are employed by this industry - both in the formal and the informal sectors." According to Mahesh Bhatt: "If they really had the guts they should go for the manufacturers. Go for the jugular. Why try and eliminate a menace by [launching the war in] the virtual world?"

Therein lies the rub. India is a major grower and exporter of tobacco in the world, and the industry contributes about Rs.70,000 million in revenue to the exchequer and Rs.10,780 million in export earnings. In addition, the tobacco industry provides employment to millions of people (26 million according to industry estimates), either directly or indirectly, in agriculture, manufacturing, marketing and retailing.

An International Labour Organisation (ILO) report titled "Employment trends in the tobacco sector: Challenges and Prospects" says that worldwide, of the 100 million people working in the industry, only about 1.2 million are employed in manufacturing. Some 40 million are employed in growing and leaf processing, 20 million in cottage industries like bidi- or kertek-making in India and Indonesia, and the rest in related jobs, including distribution, sales and promotion of tobacco use. Curiously, a lot of jobs are also created through organisations fighting tobacco use.

Juan Somavia, ILO Director-General, said in the report: "Tobacco has never been more controversial than it is today. For many who work in the tobacco sector the world over, stagnating or declining employment is a burning workplace and social issue - especially among the most vulnerable such as women and children, ethnic minorities and castes or tribes who depend on tobacco for a livelihood. Their future must be considered."

Surely, in India no government can "go for the jugular" that easily, despite the rampant health and economic costs of tobacco use.

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