Tobacco industry using Facebook to skirt regulations, facilitate bidi sales in India
A new study from global public health organization, Vital Strategies, has found that the tobacco industry is using Facebook to facilitate bidi sales, skirting India’s COTPA regulations designed to protect youth and consumers from harmful marketing. The report, Selling Death on Social Media: How Bidis Are Reaching Consumers Online details digital media monitoring data with 344 instances of bidi marketing on social media between December 2020 and August 2021, almost exclusively through Facebook (98 per cent).
Released during the COP9 global conference on tobacco, the report states the social media marketing by tobacco and bidi companies is a growing public health concern, especially as evidence shows that it leads to an increased likelihood of tobacco use among youth. Of the 267 million tobacco users in India, nearly 72 million adults smoke bidis, and nearly half (47 per cent) of users smoked their first bidi before their 10th birthday. Easily accessible throughout the country and cheaper than cigarettes, it is estimated that eight times as many bidis as cigarettes are sold in India.
“Tobacco marketing increases tobacco use. This evidence formed the basis for national and international regulations that ban or restrict the advertising of tobacco – most notably Article 13 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). As advertising regulations in traditional media have taken hold, the industry is migrating its marketing online where national regulations have been less clear,” says Nandita Murukutla, Vice President, Global Policy and Research, Vital Strategies, New York, adding that this report is a call to action for governments to surveil and address tobacco marketing on digital media. “It is also a call for social media companies, Facebook in particular, to close down tobacco marketing that facilitates sales of this deadly product,” she adds.
Key findings of the report
Facebook hosts at least 30 distinct pages for bidi companies. Many of these companies appear to be utilising Facebook pages to facilitate sales.
Nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of bidi marketing on social media used messaging depicting bidis as part of an aspirational, fun or luxurious lifestyle.
One-fifth (20 per cent) of bidi marketing on social media used messages related to community celebration, such as birthdays of famous figures and religious festivals including Holi and Eid—likely as an attempt to normalize the use of tobacco during holidays and connect it with family and community.
In 79 per cent of instances, bidi products were being directly marketed with clear images of the product. This is compared to nine per cent of other smoking products and less than one per cent of smokeless products, which are often marketed indirectly through more clandestine ways to circumvent current advertising regulations.
Read the complete study here