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Alert: How Bollywood stars sell tobacco through surrogate marketing

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India has prohibited tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, but surrogate marketing is still being used to promote tobacco use.

Tobacco is used by three out of every ten Indian adults, claiming the lives of more than 1.3 million Indians each year. To safeguard people, particularly young people, from viewing enticing commercials that glamorise tobacco use, India has prohibited tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship.

However, these items are still being advertised, frequently by our favourite Bollywood actors, through a technique known as surrogate marketing. Social media provides new, youth-friendly outlets for this sort of advertising, but we had little notion of what surrogate marketing looked like on the sites that Indians use for roughly three hours each day until recently.

Surrogate marketing is the use of an unregulated product, such as mouthwash and pan masala, to remind customers of a regulated, dangerous product, such as cigarettes. Unregulated items are advertised in the same packaging, branding colours, catch phrases, and general appearance as their regulated counterparts.

For example, the Pan Parag pan masala product uses the same yellow and red packaging as the Pan Parag gutkha product—note the usage of the same brand name. The two would seem practically identical to the untrained eye.

Surrogate marketing of tobacco products is common in India. Numerous Bollywood stars use their celebrity and reputation to promote things that affect millions of Indian families.

This has the intentional impact of associating tobacco with a lavish and prosperous lifestyle. However, smoking is neither glamorous nor a sign of success. The public is being duped.

Surrogate marketing, according to studies, maintains the cigarette brand name and image at the forefront of people’s thoughts. With the growth of social media and digital marketing, India’s young have become a more easily accessible market for cigarette companies’ marketing.

According to a new analysis, up to 12% (243 postings) of 2,011 instances of tobacco marketing identified over four months were surrogate marketing for smokeless tobacco products. The paper makes use of data from the Tobacco Enforcement and Reporting Movement, a real-time digital tobacco marketing monitoring system (TERM).

From January to May 2022, the surrogate items being advertised on sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube were exclusively mouth fresheners and pan masala products with branding and packaging that was substantially comparable to their equivalent tobacco product.

The same actors were featured in those posts. During the Republic Day ceremonies, national heroes were honoured. For Vasant Panchami greetings, the picture of the deity Maa Saraswati was even utilised. Worryingly, the tobacco business exploited youth-oriented memes based on TV shows and movies, such as Sponge Bob cartoons and the Pac-Man video game, to advertise its products.

To educate policy and reinforce enforcement, continued monitoring activities, such as TERM, that offer evidence of surrogate tobacco marketing will be required. Increasing media literacy and educating the public on the perils of deceptive surrogate marketing is another effective method for protecting young people from the dangers of tobacco. Governments can also conduct evidence-based media efforts to counter surrogate marketing with up-to-date, youth-focused health information. Campaigns can urge people to quit smoking, keep young people from starting, and generate public support for stricter tobacco control measures.

Hidden types of tobacco marketing undermine existing tobacco control efforts and endanger consumers, particularly youngsters. With data in hand, governments and authorities may take action to combat this form of marketing before it spreads further online and beyond.

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