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Sending smoke signals: lessons from the ban on advertising tobacco products

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In the second part of this series we looked at how the banning of alcohol advertising would contribute to lessening the burden alcohol-related incidents have on the public health system. In the last part of this series, Muhammad Zakaria Suleman looks at the tobacco industry, life after banning and asks if there are any lessons to be learned.

In 1999, the Tobacco Products Control Act (Tobacco Control Act) was amended to prohibit the advertising and promotion of cigarettes products in relation to sponsored events.

In 2005, South Africa ratified the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Control on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which placed obligations on state parties to undertake a comprehensive ban of all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

Three years later, the Tobacco Control Act was amended to align itself with the FCTC to include a complete ban on the advertising and promotion of tobacco products through direct and indirect means. This included television, radio, newspaper and sponsorships. To tighten the noose, anyone daring to cross the advertising line would face a R1 million fine.

The purpose of the Tobacco Control Act was to consider the extent of the harmful effects of tobacco on smokers and non-smokers. It resolved to enhance and protect the fundamental rights of citizens by discouraging the use, promotion and advertising of tobacco products in order to reduce the incidence of tobacco-related illness and death.

Significantly, the preamble of the Act also expressly realises and concedes:

“… that the association of the use of tobacco products with social success, business advancement and sporting prowess through advertising and promotion may have the particularly harmful effect of encouraging children and young people to use tobacco products”

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that such a ban is consistent with the principles of the Constitution and noted that this ban was aimed at discouraging tobacco users in the interest of promoting public health. The underlying premise was that there was a correlation between advertising and tobacco use, and that such use was having a negative effect on public health.

Interestingly, the underlying purpose of the ban on alcohol advertising aims to achieve the same result. So let’s make a comparison between smoking and alcohol. This comparison looks at consumption from a greater harm point of view. Everyone knows alcohol and smoking is clinically bad for you, but what direct and indirect harms do both of these habit-inducing substances have on people?

Cigarettes have a direct effect on the health of the smoker but also affect passive smokers around them. Smoking-related diseases such as heart and lung disease have a direct impact on the healthcare system and also affects the dependants and loved ones of the smoker, should anything critical or terminal occur as a result of their smoking. However, smoking tobacco products does not inhibit a person like alcohol can.

Alcohol-related harm has a much broader impact: it compromises your decision-making ability. This too has both direct and indirect effects on the health system. Excessive alcohol use leads to liver-related diseases, but also to all sorts of social turbulence and trauma including road accidents, alcohol-induced assaults – particularly gender-based and sexual violence – and risky sexual behaviour that increases the odds of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. And inevitably, these incidents weigh heavily on public health resources and practitioners.

The harms of alcohol advertising are far more concerning when considering that there are no measures to ban alcohol advertising. After all, the tobacco industry has acknowledged the link between advertising and the perceptions of children and young people that smoking leads to “social success, business advancement and sporting prowess”.

It would be flawed to argue that this finding is specific to tobacco usage, as the tobacco industry acknowledges that a fundamental function of advertising is the ability to urge product usage in the consumer or potential consumer.

Since the the alcohol industry (or any other industry) uses advertising to urge product usage (among other functions) for a product that has primary similarities, there is little room for debate that alcohol advertising has the same or similar effect on the perceptions of consumers and potential consumers (a point further extended on in the previous article).

So what effect has smoking regulation, which include excise tax and advertising bans, had on the usage of tobacco? The World Health Organisation did a study on South Africa in 2013.

Table from World Health Organisation Africa’s case study: Successful Tobacco Legislation in South Africa (click image above to read the full report)

Between 1993 and 2010, there was a significant drop in smoking prevalence as a result of international and governmental intervention. Banning tobacco advertising was a major part of this intervention. Also notable is that the lower the monthly income bracket a person finds themselves in, the higher the chance of them reducing the number of cigarettes they smoke. This speaks to the important role excise tax – sometimes known as ‘sin tax’ – plays in consumer choices and must be considered as part of the strategy for lobbying groups when promoting a ban on alcohol advertising.

But the data also shows a significant decrease in smoking for people between the ages of 16 and 24 in 2003. This was after the first set of cigarette advertising bans were put in place, but before the more comprehensive ban after the onset of the FCTC. This drastic drop speaks to why the amended Tobacco Control Act acknowledges the role advertising plays in influencing the ideas of young people.

We can learn a few things by reflecting on the ban on advertising tobacco products. First, a ban works. Second, the fight is long and hard and requires both scientific and economic research to battle the industry. Third, government, Parliament and the courts acknowledge the role public health plays in considering the commercial expressions of these industries. It is just a matter of advocating and lobbying towards it. And finally, alcohol advertising may not be the silver bullet for curbing the use of alcohol, but it certainly is the Achilles heel of the industry, as it challenges the basis of the industry’s interaction with society. This is where the harm lies. And this is why advertising alcohol should be banned.

This is the final part in a series of columns on alcohol advertising. Read Part 1 here.

Featured image via Unsplash

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