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How Tobacco Companies Target the Developing World

Cigarette manufacturers have set their sights on countries where tobacco-control laws aren't as robust.
An advertisement for cigarettes in India. (Photo: Nicolas Mirguet/Flickr)

An advertisement for cigarettes in India. (Photo: Nicolas Mirguet/Flickr)

If you're a 13-year-old who likes R-rated movies, and your local theater starts checking everyone's ID, you'll just try the next town over, where you know the ticket clerk isn't so strict, right?

That's exactly the kind of behavior researchers have been documenting with tobacco companies in recent years. As developed countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have implemented ever-stricter anti-smoking laws, experts have seen companies increase their advertising efforts in markets where they have freer rein: typically middle- and low-income nations.

This week, researchers and journalists in the U.K. are adding more fuel to the fire with two new investigations of companies' doings in developing countries. In a new study, an international team of tobacco-control researchers found that, among the 16 nations they looked at, people living in the low- and middle-income ones saw much more tobacco advertising than their peers in high-income countries. Around the same time, journalists with the BBC's Panorama found evidence that British American Tobacco employees bribed officials in Rwanda, the Comoros Islands, and Uganda working on national and international tobacco laws.

"The quicker the policies get implemented, the more quickly tobacco use will be brought under control."

It's a perfect storm of factors pushing those in developing countries to smoke more, leading experts to worry that tobacco will, in the future, become a bigger public-health problem in the developing world. Already, tobacco use is growing faster in some low- and middle-income countries than anywhere else. Officials in those countries need to put in strong tobacco-control laws—and soon—thinks Anna Gilmore, a public-health researcher at the University of Bath, who worked on both the paper and the Panorama episode. "The quicker the policies get implemented, the more quickly tobacco use will be brought under control, but the industry is fighting that," she says.

Bribes, of course, are already illegal. It remains to be seen what will happen to the BAT employees and country officials named in the Panorama episode. Meanwhile, bans on tobacco marketing, like the ads Gilmore and her team saw, could be especially helpful. Studies show that advertising bans reduce countries' tobacco-use rates, perhaps in part by removing a major influence on whether teens start smoking. A total ad prohibition would be anathema in U.S., where the First Amendment protects advertising as free speech, but many developed countries still enforce tobacco-ad bans. In fact, the United Nations' Framework Convention on Tobacco Control—a treaty that was signed by 14 out of the 16 nations Gilmore studied—requires countries to eliminate tobacco marketing. It's just that that clause is often poorly enforced, Gilmore says. "If countries fully implemented their obligations under the FCTC, these numbers would be brought under control. And we have seen real progress, it's just that more efforts are needed."

Like other marketers, tobacco companies have long gone after those who are most vulnerable to their wares, including kids and people trying to quit. Now they've added the denizens of developing nations to the list. Luckily, there's still time to shore up laws to protect those countries.


Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.