Unsuspecting Pakistanis Identified As ‘Key Trial Market’ For Nicotine Products By Big Tobacco Company

A disturbing report by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (the Bureau) has revealed several clandestine and illegal marketing methods being employed by the tobacco industry to attract new consumers, including people who are underage and who are, as of yet, non-smokers. According to the report, Pakistan is one the most heavily targeted markets of new tobacco and tobacco-derived products.

Among British American Tobacco’s (BAT) most effective marketing techniques is the use of influencers to lend an air of “coolness” to their products – a technique uncannily reminiscent of the way millions of unsuspecting consumers were attracted to smoking in previous decades. Although strict laws are in place today to deter direct advertisement of cigarettes and tobacco to consumers, especially children, the introduction of “tobacco-derived” but not strictly “tobacco-containing” products have allowed companies like BAT to circumvent regulation.

BAT claims that the advertisement of its products is strictly targeted toward adult and current smokers. However, its whopping marketing budget of £1bn, which particularly focuses on social media, concerts and sporting events, reveals a very different story. Indeed, BAT’S own statistics confirm that at least half of the present consumers of “nicotine pouches” like Velo had never smoked before, while the proportion of previously non-smokers to those who switched from cigarettes to “vaping” is even higher than 50 percent. In other words, many new consumers were attracted and hooked on to nicotine-based products as a direct result of new products in the market.

In another statistic, the Bureau shows that until 2012, the number of nicotine consumers was dwindling as more and more people started paying heed to the risks involved with cigarette smoking. However, this decreasing trend reversed into a steady increase in the number of nicotine consumers when, in 2013, BAT began to launch new “non-combustible” nicotine-based products.

Pakistan is one of the two countries identified directly by BAT’s director of “new categories”, Paul Lageweg, as a “key trial market” for its nicotine pouches Velo. Moreover, as per the Bureau’s report, Paul Lageweg “has boasted of the appeal of nicotine pouches among adult Gen Z and millennials.” This “appeal” is evidenced in a number of observations recorded in the Bureau’s report, in which young people seem to affirm an association of the product with being futuristic and fashionable. One youth, for example, described entering a store selling nicotine pouches in these words: “It’s like going into a sweet shop.”

A singer promoting Velo pouches in Pakistan

The Bureau identified a number of tactics employed by BAT to grow its market. Readers in Pakistan will find each of the following tactics, particularly with regard to the product “Velo”, to be highly familiar:

  • 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 on Instagram, notwithstanding the platform’s ban on the practice;

  • Sponsoring music and sporting events, which can be watched by children;

  • Offering free samples of nicotine pouches and e-cigarettes, thereby attracting underage people and non-smokers.

The last of these tactics, free sampling of nicotine pouches and vape e-cigarettes in Pakistan, seems to be happening with no constraints whatsoever. As per the Bureau’s report, “young brand reps, working on commission, handed out samples at parties, shopping malls, tea shops, restaurants and tobacconists.” Not only this, but there have also been reported instances whereby these products have been offered to underage persons, without verifying their age or whether they smoke. Meanwhile, BAT denies having carried out illegal marketing activities in Pakistan.

It is worth noting that, as opposed to Kenya, which is the second of the two “key trial markets” for BAT’s nicotine pouches, Pakistan has so far been slow to push for stricter regulation, indicating a lack of concern about the pouches’ growing popularity among youth.

Keeping these observations in mind, and in order that the next generation of Pakistanis be protected from addiction to nicotine or tobacco, it is necessary that regulation with respect to the sale and use of nicotine products be devised and implemented urgently. Pakistan needs to plug the loopholes in its existing laws, that allow predatory marketers to peddle addictive, harmful and potentially fatal products to unsuspecting consumers.