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February 21, 2021

Tobacco company selling nicotine to Pakistani youngsters

Top Story

February 21, 2021

LONDON: Last year the Spanish boyband Dvicio were riding high after their latest album topped the charts. The “boys” – by now all in their late 20s or early 30s – were the summer’s cover stars for Like!, a tween magazine. Despite the pandemic, the band were still touring Spain. But these were gigs with a difference.

The concerts were sponsored by British American Tobacco (BAT), one of the world’s largest cigarette companies. At an exclusive gig in Madrid, the front rows were full of influencers there to promote Glo, BAT’s new heated tobacco product. BAT has told regulators around the world that its new products, including heated tobacco and oral nicotine, are for current adult smokers.

But as these sponsorships make clear, it has launched an aggressive £1 billion marketing campaign that leans heavily on social media, concerts and sporting events, which could have the effect of encouraging young people to pick up a potentially deadly tobacco habit that still kills 8 million people a year, notwithstanding long-established rules aimed at preventing this.

Several of these tactics, employed in different countries around the world, have attracted a new generation including non-smokers to highly addictive nicotine and tobacco products – and that this seems to be a consequence of BAT’s plans for yet more growth, reveals an investigation by London-based the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

These tactics include presenting nicotine products as cool and aspirational in a glossy youth-focused advertising campaign; paying social media influencers to promote e-cigarettes, nicotine pouches and tobacco.

BAT told the Bureau: “All marketing activity for our products will only be directed towards adult consumers and is not designed to engage or appeal to youth … All our marketing is done responsibly, in strict accordance with our International Marketing Principles, local laws, legislation and platform policies … We only use influencers in some countries where it’s permitted, and social media platform policies allow.”

In Pakistan, the Bureau discovered that samples of BAT’s Velo nicotine pouches have been given away free. This seemed to be part of a large-scale campaign where young brand reps, working on commission, handed out samples at parties, shopping malls, tea shops, restaurants and tobacconists.*

There are concerns that the brand has also actively encouraged non-nicotine users to take up Velo. One man in Pakistan told an official Velo social media account that he was using nicotine for the first time in the form of Velo. Velo responded by saying it was “so excited” and asked for feedback. “Lit af” [Lit as fuck], the man responded. BAT denies carrying out any inappropriate marketing activity in Pakistan.

One 17-year-old in Pakistan told the Bureau that they were offered a free sample without being asked for proof of age. BAT said it hands free samples only to adult smokers.

In Kenya, the alleged availability of Lyft pouches through vending machines at major shopping centres prompted the Ministry of Health to write to the Pharmacy and Poisons Board. In the letter, the ministry described the practice as “contrary to the law”. BAT said: “Our Kenyan subsidiary, BAT Kenya, strongly denies it has ever sold Lyft pouches in automatic vending machines in Kenya.”

The young and the beautiful of Sweden are posting about a new craze: ice-white nicotine pouches that you put between your gums and teeth. Called Velo (or Lyft in some markets), they come in various flavours. Adverts emphasise them as discreet.

The facts suggest otherwise. Nicotine is toxic to the developing adolescent brain. BAT was forced to withdraw its nicotine pouches in Russia, where products made by other brands have been blamed for a number of teenage hospitalisations and linked to one death. Unfortunately, that does not appear to have stopped BAT from seemingly setting its sights on younger generations in other markets.

One 18-year-old Swede who spoke to the Bureau said half the girls in his class were using Lyft, which they found much more appealing than snus, a similar product made with tobacco. “Lyft has got this super-cool, Södermalm-trendy, influencer-aura about it,” he said. “It’s become trendy to use Lyft.”

A social media addiction The target may not have changed, but the tactics have been updated for the digital age.

In Pakistan, BAT turned to TikTok for its #OpenTheCan ad campaign for Velo. Elsewhere the company used online influencers; data analysis by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids shows that Facebook and Instagram posts from 40 influencers using Velo’s hashtags have been viewed 13.1m times and have a potential audience of over 181 million.

BAT said all the influencers it works with provide validated evidence that the vast majority of their followers are adults. Pakistan has light-touch approach when it comes to regulate nicotine pouches.

Cigarettes kill about 15 people every minute; it is not hard to see why a less deadly alternative appeals to Big Tobacco.