Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) from Fight Club, Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy) from Peaky Blinders, Faizal Khan (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Gangs of Wasseypur and Sadhu Agashe (played by Nana Patekar) in Ab Tak Chhappan. What do these men have in common...besides the fact that they represent the epitome of an alpha male? In almost every pivotal scene in the film/series, they can be seen taking a puff of a cigarette while intimidatingly staring into the camera.
For decades, smoking has been used on-screen to convey one message. That is, smoking is cool. Regardless of one's geodemographics, a person can easily recall a movie scene where the charismatic hero walks away victorious after a fight while smoking a cigarette. This message was introduced to the screen by the cigarette brand Marlboro and it effectively revolutionized how cigarettes were marketed. Till then, cigarette brands aimed to advertise the supposedly lesser health implications caused by smoking their cigarettes. It was into this market that Marlboro introduced their 'Malboro Man'- the rugged, macho cowboy who after working tirelessly in a wild terrain enjoys the serenity brought forth by smoking a cigarette. Needless to say, the Malboro Man campaign worked and the company saw a 300 percent increase in sales in just two years.
Now that advertisements and movies have proven to be effective tools in convincing a person to try his or her first smoke, cigarette brands have been subtly promoting smoking by showing our favourite fictional characters smoke on screen. An article published in Association for Psychological Science has stated that smoking in movies is an important promoter of adolescent smoking initiation. A study published in The Lancet states that smoking habit is developed early in life, with over 89 per cent becoming addicts by the age of 25.
Vaishakhi Mallik, associate director of Vital Strategies, a non-profit global health organization said, “Tobacco kills nearly one in two users, but to this day advertising, promotion and sponsorship normalize tobacco. With the rise of social media and digital marketing, India’s youth have worryingly become a lucrative market for the tobacco industry."
Each year, the tobacco industry spends millions of dollars on marketing to increase tobacco consumption, particularly among youth, to the 267 million tobacco users present in India. During May 2021, over 850 instances of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorships (TAPS) online were reported on Tobacco Enforcement and Reporting Movement (TERM), a digital tool to regularly monitor and track tobacco marketing. Despite the World Health Organization’s recommended ban or restrictions on TAPS, and even though all forms are prohibited in India, tobacco marketing continues to be widespread, particularly via online channels, which are less regulated than traditional media such as radio and television.
Dr Rana J Singh, Deputy Regional Director, International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease said, "The data from the TERM platform will allow the Union and many of our partners to examine which loopholes are being exploited and manipulated by the tobacco industry. This, in turn, will support our efforts to strengthen and enforce tobacco control measures, helping policy implementers with evidence-based proof of surrogate and indirect advertising. Such evidence lends credibility to tobacco control programs, which can then enable policy action, stakeholder involvement, and greater enforcement towards a tobacco-free India.”
TERM launched as a Facebook campaign page in 2019 and has expanded into a digital crowdsourcing tool with situational reports. These reports categorize instances of tobacco marketing according to their volume, the state in which they occur, message content, and the channel. TERM, along with common social media users, logged 4,222 total marketing instances in just five months. The TERM platform is among the many initiatives from Vital Strategies and its network of partners in India to support the government’s ongoing tobacco control programmes and promote the implementation of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and MPOWER package to raise awareness about the dangers of tobacco.
With the awareness spread by non-profit organisations, WHO and national governments, there has been a positive impact, albeit slightly, on global tobacco consumption. According to a 2019 report by WHO, the number of males consuming tobacco is on the decline and by 2025, there should be 32 million fewer women tobacco users. Media plays an important role in changing the perspective of the masses and if the media industry shifts its narrative on tobacco consumption, it might one day lead to adolescents thinking twice about taking his or her first whiff of a cigarette.