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December 19, 2020

Music to the profiteers

Opinion

December 19, 2020

The writer is a lawyer.

In Pakistan, when it comes to music, you take what you can get. And more often than not, what you get is the backwashed brain-child of some beverage company’s marketing department. Using music to sell products has always been our thing. In fact, nursery-rhyme-scripts are even used to help us remember phone numbers. And so, these corporate music performance gigs are the Woodstock of ad marketing. Which is why you can’t exactly blame Velo for wanting a piece of the action.

Selfishly, anything that introduces more people to Natasha Noorani (who I have been convinced for some time, will prove to be a once-in-a-generation kind of talent) ought to get a pass. But when a new product materializes into existence with a marketing budget that can afford the likes of Atif Aslam and Strings - with money to spare for an exceedingly enthusiastic (and not exactly anonymous) entourage in galleries - one can’t help but wonder who is signing the cheques.

The answer, it turns out, is the Pakistan Tobacco Company – local subsidiary of the world’s largest tobacco manufacturing company by net sales, British American Tobacco. Which is a curious thing, because tobacco companies generally aren’t allowed to market their products.

So how did this slip through the regulatory cracks? Well, for starters, it isn’t the companies that are banned from advertising, but ‘tobacco-products’ in particular. Velo’s website describes it as “an innovative white nicotine pouch that offers nicotine consumers a discreet, hands free and effective way to get their nicotine on the go”. Which is a roundabout way of saying it’s a fancy kind of naswar.

To be fair to marketing execs who may have popped a vein, the FAQs on the website preempt this by asking, “Is Velo Naswar?”. The PTC responds, “No, this is a very different product. Unlike naswar, it contains no tobacco. Naswar belongs to a category of traditional oral tobacco products.”

So what they’re saying, then, is that it is a kind of naswar that contains nicotine, but no tobacco. And it’s white. This, it estimates, will help target a demographic that relates to the suave models of its ads – who sail (and correctly pronounce) yachts, flaunting fluttering white shirts with dangerously few buttons while they do it.

But for all the fancy marketing, the claims aren’t exactly true. Aside from the fact that the mechanics of it are identical to taking naswar, that ‘no tobacco’ bit is rather misleading.

Different regulatory regimes mean that multinationals push the envelope to different degrees in different countries. If you head over to the US-version of Velo’s website, you’ll find a candor that hasn’t been extended to us (perhaps Pakistanis Frequently Ask less important Questions). “Are Velo nicotine pouches considered tobacco products?”, asks the US counterpart. “Yes.”, is the answer. Surprise surprise.

As the website is forced to admit, Velo is considered a tobacco product by the US Food and Drug Administration, because products that contain nicotine extracted from the tobacco plant are considered to be ‘tobacco products’. And it just so happens that the nicotine in these pouches is extracted from Nicotiana Tabacum – the tobacco plant. The answer to another FAQ confirms this.

Why, then, is it able to market itself as a ‘tobacco-free’ product – or at all – in Pakistan? Well, for one thing, the FDA’s jurisdiction doesn’t extend to Pakistan. Instead, 18 years after the relevant law was passed, Pakistan still hasn’t defined the term ‘tobacco product’. (The Senate tried once, but Big Tobacco hijacked the whole thing with its evergreen ‘illicit tobacco’ persecution complex.)

If we did know what tobacco products included, Section 7 of the 2002 Prohibition of Smoking Ordinance would prohibit the advertisement of both, ‘tobacco and tobacco product[s]’. The 2003 Guidelines even go so far as to say that “Young people (under 40 years of age) may not be used as models in advertisements for tobacco.” Since the parent law refers not just to ‘tobacco’, but also ‘tobacco products’, that, alone, would have reduced the entire thing to Strings and Sajjad Ali performing in front of an empty gallery.

But that’s only half the problem. It’s unclear what compelled PTC to choose a YouTube-only release as opposed to traditional TV. Maybe it was a matter of not prodding at the hive. Because, even if the law categorised nicotine pouches as ‘tobacco-products’, it still wouldn’t preclude traditional television advertising. This is out of step with the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which we ratified in 2004, and have made significant effort in incorporating, since. Article 13 of the FCTC bans the advertisement and sale of tobacco products through the internet.

The regulatory inertia is pretty lucky for Big Tobacco. Because Big Tobacco tends to make its own luck. (There’s a reason ‘Big’ Tobacco wants to rebrand itself as ‘New’ Tobacco: it would much rather hide the sheer scale of its lobbying presence.) The Big Tobacco playbook involves frequent reminders that it pays billions in taxes, and employs thousands of people. Big Tobacco will nobly urge the government to clamp down on illegally traded tobacco to increase tax collection, as if an increased monopoly over the market share is only incidental.

Big Tobacco is the king of spin.

And so, you can expect reactions to a piece like this to be fairly creative. This is about providing an avenue to talent. It is about a music industry that is gasping for breath (incidentally, like many of tobacco’s most ardent customers). Don’t be a killjoy. Etc.

And when spin fails, there’s always doubt. “Doubt is our ‘product’, since it’s the best way to fight all the facts that are now known to the public,” read an internal memo of a BAT subsidiary in 1957. For decades, Big Tobacco has paid off scientists, created pseudo-scientific journals and organized conferences to peddle Doubt. So, forget that nicotine has literally been used as insecticide for centuries, or that the real ‘Boom Boom’ your ‘Dil’ needs to worry about is from heart palpitations. Focus on the fact that they are less harmful than cigarettes. Big Tobacco is a changed person. Help it help you.

And, sure, you don’t have to work for Big Tobacco to ask why we can’t just enjoy things for what they are. But this presumes that people know what things really ‘are’. So here goes. This isn't some innocuous promotion of the arts. The patron is a multi-billion-dollar machine, and this is its attempt to squeeze more money out of an easy target.

Big Tobacco may sell death, but it is no dying industry. Even as per-capita consumption falls, absolute numbers continue to rise. And for the younger ones, there’s nicotine pouches. Don’t let the 18 years and older signs fool you: they didn’t pick Shamoon Ismail to appeal to the bridge room at the Gymkhana.

This isn’t about gently lowering a dying market into its grave. It’s about killing a new one.

Still, there was a time when it was easier. We’re more likely, now, to see cricketers tell us that the key to their stamina is laying off the cancer sticks, than we are to see them playing in the World Cups sponsored by Benson & Hedges or Wills. Marlboro Man – that paragon of wild-west men’s men – (initially introduced to dispel the idea that filtered cigarettes were effeminate) is nowhere to be found on billboards. You could, however, find five of the actors who played him in a cemetery on account of deaths related to the products they helped sell.

As J K Simmons, playing a Big Tobacco lobbyist in the 2005 film, ‘Thank You for Smoking’, quips, “We don’t sell Tic-Tacs, for Christ’s sake; we sell cigarettes. And they’re cool, available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us.” We may have been too late to respond to cigarettes, but we’re getting there. But we definitely have better odds against these insecticide pouches.

Not only are nicotine pouches actually a lot more like Tic-Tacs, but there’s really no reason for them to be cool. Fortunately, the only way that will happen is if we let it.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @brainmasalaar