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Vital Stories

When Citizens Become Industry Watchdogs

An Innovative Campaign in India is Uncovering Illegal Marketing by Tobacco Companies

Vital Strategies

By Manish Pant, Communication Manager, India, Vital Strategies

Beginning in June 2019, the Vital Strategies team in India launched a national Facebook campaign, Tobacco Enforcement & Reporting Movement (TERM), to take on the tobacco industry with an innovative approach. The campaign aims to de-normalize industry interference in tobacco control laws and encourage the general public to recognize and expose the industry’s underhanded marketing tactics, legal violations and manipulation of loopholes.

The TERM Facebook campaign focuses on tobacco advertising, promotions and sponsorships violations. In India, it’s illegal to market tobacco products both directly and indirectly. But the industry has found ways to circumvent the law. We developed engaging Facebook posts that inspire regular people to report marketing violations such as surrogate advertising (launching new products using a tobacco brand name), point-of-sale ads, marketing in films and television, and advertising near schools. TERM leverages these user-generated posts to highlight the need to strengthen tobacco control laws in India.

The initial phase of the campaign educated the general public about tobacco control laws and the industry’s predatory marketing tactics. It ultimately encouraged people to report violations of direct and indirect marketing. The campaign was successful, prompting multiple people to report violations related to events, promotions and sponsorship by tobacco companies. Examples of user-generated reports included exposing that a leading literature festival was sponsored by a tobacco company and capturing advertisements for pan masala, a product made and branded by tobacco companies, which were aired during cricket matches.

This year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the government banned spitting in public places, which is common among people chewing tobacco, Vital India received numerous reports of violations on the TERM Facebook page. The team is also receiving reports of violations related to surrogate marketing by tobacco companies.

As part of our strategy to educate people about the industry’s shady tactics, Vital India is also training tobacco control advocates in 12 states to report violations related to smokeless tobacco marketing, smokeless tobacco bans and spitting bans on the TERM Facebook page. We can then tag these posts to inform local enforcement authorities such as police, state health departments or municipal corporations of the violations and spur them to take action against the offenders.

In the last three months, the TERM page reached 2.84 million users and garnered 850,000 total engagements in the form of likes, comments and shares. To date, users have posted 154 tobacco marketing violations. The page also creates support for strengthening current laws by passing the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) amendment, which calls for a complete removal of designated smoking areas.

Vital India is amplifying tobacco marketing violations through earned media by leveraging another influential youth media platform, Youth Ki Awaaz. In the near future, the portal will host articles and videos on tobacco control issues and reported violations, as well as original feature content from The Union and Vital Strategies.

With TERM’s growing base of supporters and steady increase in reported violations, the next step in Vital India’s strategy will be to curate trends in tobacco marketing in India. The goal is to submit this data to the government and tobacco control partners in an effort to increase support for ongoing tobacco control efforts.

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