Why PH wants an end to the ‘Be Marlboro’ campaign

Jee Y. Geronimo

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The latest advertisements of the Philip Morris product targets to get teenagers hooked on smoking, to replace its old market, a study says

BE MARLBORO. This is a picture of an outdoor billboard in Germany. Photo from WhyQuit

MANILA, Philippines – Filipino health advocates on Thursday, March 13, joined the global call for an end to Marlboro’s campaign that they say aims to get teenagers hooked on smoking.

The global “Be Marlboro” campaign of Philip Morris International (PMI) has been banned in Germany since October for “consciously” encouraging teenagers as young as 14 to smoke. This is in violation of the country’s advertising laws.

Presenting the findings of a report developed by 6 international groups, supporters of tobacco control said PMI’s current campaign, which started in 2011, encourages teenagers to take up the habit of smoking. They highlighted the different tactics being used in the campaign, including outdoor advertising, point-of-sale advertising, and social media marketing. 

The report comes amid a slight decline in the number of young smokers in the Philippines, where the “Be Marlboro” campaign began in 2013. 

According to the report, the “Be Marlboro” campaign was launched to replace the infamous “Marlboro Man,” which was developed by the same ad agency, Leo Burnett. 

“The ‘Be Marlboro’ campaign seizes on the adolescent’s search for identity by suggesting that, in the face of uncertainty, they should be a Marlboro smoker,” the report said. This is “mirroring concepts and recommendations from the Philip Morris Archetype Project conducted in the 1990s concerning the use of smoking by teenagers to transition from childhood to adulthood.”

The Archetype Project is a PMI study in the 1990s that looked at emotional reasons for why people smoke. Findings showed an individual’s attitude and impressions about smoking are formed early on in life.

In order to attract customers, the study recommended for PMI’s marketing department to stress on making smoking attractive to teenagers, among other things. 

The “Be Marlboro” campaign reflects this, according to the recent report, with advertisements “clearly” focusing on youth-oriented images and themes such as “partying, falling in love, conquering heights, adventure traveling, playing music, and generally being ‘cool.”

Advertisements near schools

YOUNG AUDIENCE. This photo shows a Filipino teenager smoking underneath a

In a statement sent to Rappler on Thursday, PMI said Philip Morris Germany is still challenging the decision of the Munich Administrative Court.

It insisted the Marlboro campaign is “aimed exclusively at adult smokers” and “conducted in compliance with local regulations and internal marketing policies.”

“Allegations to the contrary are unfounded and based on a subjective interpretation,” PMI said, adding that their campaign is intended to encourage smokers of competing brands to switch to their products. 

According to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), one of the groups that developed the global report, the Philippines and Indonesia are two of “Be Marlboro” campaign’s target countries in the region.

While tobacco advertising in the Philippines has been banned in most media except at points-of-sale, many retail stores still have “Be Marlboro” billboards, even in stores near schools.

Republic Act 9211 or the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003 prohibits the sale and outdoor advertising of tobacco products within 100 meters from any point of the perimeter of a school, a public playground, or other places frequented by minors.

But many retail stores near school premises still sell cigarettes. Dr Loida Labao-Alzona, head of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Health Public Safety and Environmental Protection, said these stores even sell to minors.

MMDA recently went around 730 schools in Metro Manila and identified 5,475 retail stores located 100 meters within school zones, including the takataks or street vendors. Of this number, 3,553 were caught selling cigarettes.

Comprehensive ad ban

COMPREHENSIVE TAPS. Health advocates call for a stricter implementation of the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003. Photo by Jee Geronimo/Rappler

There are an estimated 172 million smokers in the ASEAN region, and 17 million or more than 10% of this number are Filipinos, SEATCA senior policy adviser Mary Assunta Kolandai said. 

If the Philippine tobacco industry loses 88,000 smokers a year – the estimated number of deaths due to tobacco-related diseases – Kolandai said firms will need to tap into new market for their business to thrive.

According to a recent nationwide survey, the number of young Filipinos who are current smokers slightly declined from 20.9% in 2002 to 19.7% in 2013. 

As of 2007, the Global Youth Tobacco Survey said there are 4 million young smokers in the Philippines. Almost 30% of them began the habit as young as 12 to 15 years old. 

The respondents of the survey – high school students aged 13 to 17 years old – said Marlboro was one of the two brands they usually smoked. The survey also showed some of the perceptions toward smoking: those who smoke have more friends, and smoking helps in losing weight.

“They say they don’t advertise to kids, [that] they target adults. But who are they kidding? They don’t need to advertise to smokers anymore – smokers are already hooked. They need to advertise to children, they call them replacement smokers,” HealthJustice managing director Irene Reyes said.

SEATCA said PMI’s market share in the Philippines went down from 87% in 2012 to 72% in 2013 due to higher excise taxes after the sin tax law was implemented. Despite this, the firm still controls majority of cigarette market share in the country. (READ: A year of sin tax: Too early to assess public health impact)

Reyes said stopping the “Be Marlboro” campaign will not be enough to discourage kids from smoking.

“If we stop this, there will be another ad campaign targeting kids. [The] best way is to push for a comprehensive ban on TAPS [tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship],” she said. (READ: Health advocates call for total tobacco ad ban)

Kolandai said there is a need to “denormalize” the product itself, and stricter regulations on tobacco advertising can do the trick.

The Metro Manila Council, composed of all 17 mayors of local government agencies in the region, agreed last January to implement ordinances on the use, sale, distribution, and promotion of tobacco products to and by minors. – Rappler.com

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Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.