New Delhi: A new study from global public health organization Vital Strategies 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%).
Key findings in the report include:
Facebook hosts at least 30 distinct pages for bidi companies. Many of these companies appear to be utilizing Facebook pages to facilitate sales.
Nearly a quarter (24%) of bidi marketing on social media used messaging depicting bidis as part of an aspirational, fun or luxurious lifestyle.
One-fifth (20%) of bidi marketing on social media used messages related to community celebrations, 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% of instances, bidi products were being directly marketed with clear images of the product. This is compared to 9% of other smoking products and less than 1% of smokeless products, which are often marketed indirectly through more clandestine ways to circumvent current advertising regulations.
Released during the COP9 global conference on tobacco, the report comes as 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 theidi before their 10th birthday. Easily accessible throughout the country and cheaper than cigarettes, it is estimated that 267 million tobacco users in India, nearly 72 million adults smoke bidis, and nearly half (47%) of users smoked their first bat eight times as many bidis as cigarettes are sold in India.
Nandita Murukutla, Vice President, Global Policy and Research, New York, Vital Strategies, said: “The evidence is clear: 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). When the FCTC went into effect in 2005, however, social media use was in its infancy. As advertising regulations in traditional media have taken hold, the industry is migrating its marketing online where national regulations have been less clear. With the Ninth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO FCTC taking place virtually this week, 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.”
Vaishakhi Mallik, Associate Director, Communications, India, Vital Strategies, said: “Social media giants have a duty of care, especially to their younger users. Though bidis are more harmful to health than other tobacco products, they have flown under the regulatory radar for far too long. Our research confirms the need for more careful and stringent surveillance of the bidi industry’s branding and marketing efforts – both online and offline- as per Section 5 of India’s Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) 2003. That almost half of youth age ten have tried bidi smoking is unacceptable. The deceptive nature of the industry’s marketing, now on youth-friendly social media platforms that often lack age verification, could worsen that health crisis. The bidi industry and the technology platforms enabling them must be held accountable.”
Amit Yadav, Senior Technical Advisor – Tobacco Control at The International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) said, “The Union commends Vital Strategies for this first-of-its-kind report that affirms bidi companies are openly leveraging social media platforms to advertise their harmful products which is in violation of COTPA, Government of India’s tobacco control legislation. We must address online bidi marketing so that offline enforcement is more effective. This data continues to support our efforts, many of our partners, and state governments in strengthening and enforcing tobacco control measures in India, while simultaneously providing policymakers and implementers with evidence-based proof of bidi advertising and marketing. Such evidence will lend credibility to tobacco control programs, which can subsequently enable policy action.”
Selling Death on Social Media: How Bidis Are Reaching Consumers Online is based on data collected through Tobacco Enforcement and Reporting Movement (TERM), a digital media monitoring system used to track tobacco marketing online through the systematic analysis of online news, articles, social media posts, and conversations. The legislation prohibits the direct and indirect advertisement of tobacco products in India, yet TERM exposes that tobacco marketing on social media continues to be widespread, which may be due to the unregulated nature of social media advertisement. This marketing is often designed to appeal to youth by associating tobacco use with popular celebrations and events.