CHINA - Tobacco advertisers in China are taking to new media, particularly social networking platforms, to circumvent regulations and target the younger generation, according to an NGO report released on Tuesday.
The report, compiled by ThinkTank Research Center for Health Development, which is committed to tobacco control, comes ahead of World No Tobacco Day on May 31, whose theme this year is banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.
China has the world's largest population of smokers, "and now the industry is beginning to promote its products online via new media, as current laws do not cover this emerging phenomenon", said Wu Yiqun, the centre's deputy director.
China's Advertisement Law bans advertising tobacco products through mass media such as television, radio, newspapers, magazines and journals.
"That obviously has not adapted to the shifting media landscape, which in general moves online and toward smartphones," said Huang Jinrong, a law researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The Chinese mainland has more than 564 million Internet users, 420 million of whom access the Internet via cellphones.
"A huge number of them are young people, who the tobacco industry is struggling to win over as loyal consumers," Wu said.
Tobacco advertisers have turned to new-media platforms, including micro blogs and Tencent's popular messaging service, Weixin (marketed internationally as WeChat), as well as tobacco-themed online forums and tobacco company websites, she said.
In a typical case, a cigarette company named Taishan Mountain opened a micro blog on Sina Weibo to routinely promote its products, related cultural and historical information, and corporate social responsibility events, according to the NGO report. It now has 120,000 followers.
Li Tong at ThinkTank Research Center, said micro blogs can reach vast numbers of people, and the functions of forwarding posts and leaving comments greatly enhance two-way communication. "It's cost-effective for tobacco companies, compared with other forms of advertising," she said.
More important, micro blog promotions with words, pictures and video help attract young people by exposing them to tobacco-related information, she added.
Sometimes, the promotion even goes offline, Li said, citing report findings.
The producer of Double Happiness cigarettes launched in January an event at its base in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, through Wei xin, according to the report. During the event, saleswomen gave away free samples to visitors, mostly white-collar workers.
"It's a more targeted and interesting means of promotion," Li said.
Huang said such tobacco advertising should be banned, "but so far, there remains a legal vacuum for promotions delivered through new social media."
The Chinese mainland has more than 300 million smokers, and each year at least 1 million people die from smoking-related diseases, according to the Chinese National Health and Family Planning Commission.