Today, billions of people around the world, including many younger people, consider themselves fans of a sport or team. Sports stars such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo—the two most-followed personalities on Instagram—are globally revered. That makes sports teams and their leading stars an attractive marketing vehicle for the tobacco industry.
Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship (TAPS) has, for the most part, been eliminated from official channels (e.g., broadcast) at international sports tournaments, such as the FIFA World Cup. A new report released by Vital Strategies’ Tobacco Enforcement and Reporting Movement reveals that the tobacco industry is still finding ways to link products with football and the tournament. The report, which looked at the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup, reveals examples of such marketing on social media platforms in Indonesia, India and Mexico. These include World Cup-related event sponsorship by tobacco companies, promotions for limited-edition tobacco products, tobacco product giveaways pegged to specific games, and the use of football stars to promote tobacco products.
We spoke with several of the report authors to learn more: Silvia Dini, Policy Campaign Coordinator in Indonesia; Neha Garg, Communication Officer in India; and Benjamín González Rubio, Communication Manager in Mexico.
In Indonesia, online tobacco marketing promoted offline events during the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup. Can you tell us more about this marketing and why it’s a cause for concern?
Silvia Dini: We observed marketing for a series of World Cup game viewing parties that were sponsored by football media platforms owned by the tobacco companies Gudang Garam and Djarum. These events were presented with partners in technology and media at an entertainment center in Yogyakarta and a chain of national mini markets. We also observed marketing for an event series connected to the World Cup that Djarum’s football media platform “Super Soccer” created, called “Soccerphoria.” The series took place on four dates in November and December 2022, in four major cities; it featured concerts by famous singers, and displayed Djarum limited-edition World Cup cigarette packs that were designed by local artists.
The tobacco control community has worked very hard to eliminate the connection between tobacco and sports and has had a lot of success in many countries—unfortunately, Indonesia is not one of them. These events that took place during the World Cup in Indonesia, especially when associated with respected technology and media companies and artists, normalize the connection between tobacco and sports.
The marketing observed in India was for fast-moving consumer goods and not for tobacco products. Can you please explain the link to tobacco?
Neha Garg: Since India has a blanket ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, tobacco companies are using the non-tobacco products in their portfolio to sponsor and advertise including around sports; this is a tactic called brand extension. All the marketing we found in our study originated from tobacco company extended brands. Researchers have also found this to be true in India’s national cricket league, the Indian Premier League: Two teams during the 2020 season were sponsored by extended brands.
In our study, most of the products being promoted were ultra-processed foods manufactured by tobacco companies. Like tobacco, these foods are risk factors for noncommunicable diseases. A recent study connected 57,000 premature deaths in Brazil in 2019 to ultra-processed foods, which corresponded to 10.5% of all premature deaths in the country. This nexus between tobacco and ultra-processed foods is worth further exploration.
In Mexico, most of the observed marketing related to the World Cup was for electronic cigarettes. Why do you think that was?
Benjamín González Rubio: Yes, most of the marketing we observed was for electronic cigarettes and originated from accounts associated with retailers and the official Mexico distributor of a brand. The World Cup took place at the same time as a nationwide shopping event here in Mexico, known as “El buen fin,” so we also observed some price promotions linked to those two events.
In Mexico, TERM generally sees marketing for cigars and electronic cigarettes. Cigar marketing tends to be geared toward older audiences while electronic cigarette marketing seizes on holidays and other events to colorfully market to young people. We’ve also observed some marketing for electronic cigarettes that attempts to connect products with sports, athletes and healthy physical activity, just as the cigarette industry once did—and in many places still does.
The association of tobacco with celebrities is a well-known strategy to glamorize product use. How were football stars used to promote tobacco on social media in your country?
Neha Garg: Lionel Messi, who led his country (Argentina) to victory in this last World Cup, is considered a legend in India. The marketing we observed used his name and fame to link the tournament to products and the tobacco company behind them. This included memes such as “You Don’t Messi With the Best” to promote smokeless tobacco, DS Group’s Chingles gum and a play on Messi’s title as the GOAT (greatest of all time) to promote ITC Ltd.’s chips. There was also a composite photo that was originally taken for a Louis Vuitton campaign that features Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) that was doctored into an ad for a new snack menu at Miraj Group’s Miraj Cinemas.
Silvia Dini: We actually saw that same composite photo being used in Indonesia by an account associated with Djarum that focuses on photography. This account is called “LensA Community,” with attention drawn to the “L” and “A” in the logo to create associations with Djarum’s LA cigarette product line. TERM has uncovered a series of these accounts that focus on general interests (e.g., scooters, lifestyle) and subtly connect them with tobacco through logos that match different cigarette brands and via content that is shared, such as posting images of tobacco products or featuring people smoking.
Benjamín González Rubio: By far the most egregious example of this in Mexico was a doctored image of our beloved national team goalkeeper, Guillermo Ochoa, that was used by an electronic cigarette retailer to promote its products. Ochoa is pictured holding an electronic cigarette with smoke coming out of his nose that has the colors of the Mexican flag (green, white and red); the caption reads “Let’s Go Mexico!” (¡Vamos México!). Thus, electronic cigarettes are being connected with a national hero and national pride.
What recommendations do you have to curb the marketing that was uncovered on social media platforms in your country?
Silvia Dini: It’s clear that Indonesia, which currently has weak restrictions on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, needs to regulate these activities in line with WHO recommendations, including in sports. Tobacco companies should not be permitted to link their products with sports, which represent health and social cohesion. It was also concerning to see limited edition World Cup cigarette packaging and electronic cigarette devices. Ideally, we’d have plain packaging policies for all tobacco products, which are known to reduce use, but for now, we are pushing for larger warnings on cigarette packs.
Neha Garg: There needs to be coordination among stakeholders to address marketing restrictions for health-harming products, including tobacco and ultra-processed foods. This is true at the national level as well as at the international level, where international tournaments are still welcoming sponsorships from and partnerships with ultra-processed food companies, despite the fact that these products are increasingly linked to noncommunicable diseases.
Benjamín González Rubio: Mexico recently banned the sale of electronic cigarettes, but TERM is still seeing these products being marketed for sale, especially by retailers. It’s important to monitor, report and act on this marketing, to help ensure that policies are fully implemented.
About the Tobacco Enforcement and Reporting Movement
Vital Strategies’ Tobacco Enforcement and Reporting Movement (TERM) is a digital media monitoring system that tracks tobacco marketing online on social media platforms and news sites. TERM is currently operating in India, Indonesia and Mexico.
About Vital Strategies
Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by equitable and effective public health systems. We partner with governments, communities and organizations to reimagine public health, and the result is millions of people living longer, healthier lives. Our goal is to build a future where better health is supported across all facets of our lives, in our families, communities, in our environment and our governments.