Forced off the streets by the imminent advertising ban, the tobacco industry is trying to take its cynical marketing into family homes, a leading expert warns.
At a special fringe event at the Labour Party Conference, Cancer Research UK’s tobacco control expert Professor Gerard Hastings will expose how the tobacco industry is attempting to get round the ban by lobbying government to exempt direct mail from the new legislation.
Direct mail is an important tool for the tobacco industry in helping them build relationships with existing smokers and to promote their deadly product to a new generation of potential smokers.
Professor Hastings and his team of investigators at the Centre for Tobacco Control Research at the University of Strathclyde have been monitoring the industry’s change in marketing tactics and their attempts to narrow the scope of the now imminent ad ban.
Professor Hastings says: “Big Tobacco always knew that the advertising ban would come eventually and they have been channelling all their efforts into trying to get round it. And it’s vital that they don’t succeed.
“Their sophisticated marketing techniques include personally targeted mailings, carefully designed to counteract tobacco tax increases. But to maintain their market they also need to encourage a new generation to take up the habit and young people are a key target.
“Most smokers start before the age of 18 and people who start young smoke for an average of 25 years. This means that each new smoker is worth around £36,000 to the tobacco industry. With these kinds of profits to be made they simply can’t afford to lose them.”
Technological advances in database management have greatly improved the efficiency and cost effectiveness of direct marketing. Common offers include money off coupons to coincide with tax rises, competitions, and free samples of new products or brands. Loyalty schemes are particularly important in helping manufacturers collect data on their customers, including demographics, brand preferences and lifestyle, all of which help them target the next mailing better.
Free gifts are another key technique, as Professor Hastings explains: “Our Unit spotted a particularly eye-catching example recently. Lambert and Butler (a very popular brand with underage smokers) distributed over 100,000 golfing umbrellas.
He adds: “Not only does this kind of marketing reach children directly (they see it come through the door) but also indirectly because they are exposed to the resulting ambient advertising – in this case seeing the adults use the umbrellas.
“And worryingly we know that it works. Our studies show that children are aware of direct mail arriving in their homes, and also that the more types of advertising kids are aware of, the more likely they are to smoke.”
The Unit has compiled a report on young people’s exposure to and awareness of tobacco marketing communications, including direct mail, which will be available by the end of the year.
In the meantime health charities are urging government not to be deflected from implementing the advertising ban, or persuaded into making the legislation any less stringent.
Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK says: “We welcomed the ban on tobacco advertising, because we know that advertising works – reassuring the health concerns of current smokers and encouraging new smokers to take up the habit.
“Around 450 children take up smoking every day in the UK. And every day that this legislation is delayed, eight smokers die from smoking related diseases.
“So our investigators will continue to monitor the tobacco industry’s activities and expose their shameful attempts to weaken this vital piece of legislation.”
Baroness Hayman, Chair of Cancer Research UK and a keen advocate of the tobacco advertising ban says: “An awful lot of hard work has been done in both Houses on putting this legislation together and steering it through Parliament.
“It would be a terrible blow to public health if it should fall at the last hurdle.”