Alcohol and tobacco promotion using
Choice is an illusion. One may think he has a choice, but the chances are, he is being forced to make that choice. This is what the alcohol and tobacco companies do.

Even when it comes to perfumes or mobile phones, people are made to or forced to choose, said Alcohol and Drug Information Center (ADIC) President Pubudu Sumanasekara. This was the response to a question regarding the forceful method adapted by anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol campaigns. After all, if an adult is aware of the consequences of an action, doesn’t the interference of society have to stop somewhere?
With a rapid rise in anti-tobacco and alcohol campaigns, it is also important to look at how effective they are. Since its inauguration in 1987, ADIC has been working ‘to create a world where every person realizes that use of whatever drug at whatever level is an impediment to happiness.’ While walls are covered in awareness posters and many events have been organized to reduce alcohol and tobacco use, campaigns have begun humiliating and ridiculing alcohol and tobacco users. Thus people are stuck at a crossroads, unsure of which forced-decision they should make.

It is thus important to make sure such campaigns do not backfire and have a negative effect on society. “It’s important to give reasons without just saying, ‘no!’” explained Sumanasekara. For instance, seeing a poster that says, ‘do not smoke!’ may either be ignored completely or might tempt people to smoke at least once. Reverse psychology can come into effect here and would lead to people wanting to try this substance. Organizations are trying hard to make people reduce its usage.

When watching a film, one may not even notice that a character is consuming alcohol. However, blurring the scene might draw unwanted attention to the act. This could lead to people being suddenly aware that ‘something bad is going on’ and many, especially children and youth, could be tempted to see why this act of drinking is bad.

“You are watching a film where Sylvester Stallone is smoking a cigarette. At the bottom of a screen, a warning says, ‘smoking causes sexual impotence.’ Wouldn’t you be more aware of the negative effects of smoking?” Sumanasekera said while discussing how a promotion could be made more effective and explained how a campaign should also give reason.

He also explained how song lyrics, films and even cartoons, are used to encourage people to drink and smoke. This has now spread to social media too, where common belief is that anything and everything can be posted and published. While limitations can be put on electronic and print media, social media is relatively regulation-free. Thus it can be used as a platform to encourage tobacco and alcohol use.

While anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol organizations have taken great measures to ensure alcohol and tobacco products are not advertised or promoted on traditional media, the alcohol and tobacco companies have been quick to embrace social media.

According to the Section 35 (1) of the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) Act, No 27 of 2006, it is stated, ‘A person shall not publish or cause to be published, or authorize the publication of, a tobacco advertisement or an alcohol advertisement.’ However, this hasn’t stopped alcohol and tobacco advertisements from being published on social media.

Promotions for restaurants and hotels, and not only pubs and clubs, are often done through discounts or special offers on alcohol. Further, events like International Beer Day and Oktoberfest, founded in other countries, being introduced to Sri Lanka further encourage substance use.

The NATA Act also states that ‘it shall not be a contravention of subsection (1) to publish, transmit or broadcast any scientific, educational, social, medical technical or other material or information beneficial to the public pertaining to tobacco products or alcohol products.’ However, promotions of alcohol and tobacco products are rampant on social media and use sports, movies and other social activities to attract people.

According to the ADIC trend survey on tobacco (December 2014), 15.9 percent of users have listed socializing with friends as a reason for tobacco use. With regard to alcohol use, 27.9 percent of users have listed the same reason for their alcohol use, according to the ADIC trend survey on alcohol (December 2014).

Further, ‘fun/happy/enjoyment’ is listed as the most common reason for alcohol use and was the reason given by 28.2 percent. Thus it is clear that socializing and enjoyment are the most common reasons for alcohol and tobacco use. Thus the group targeted by alcohol and tobacco companies can be easily found on social media. Promotional campaigns online will be not only cost effective for the companies, but will also reach a wider audience.

‘Social media strategies employed by alcohol brands go beyond promoting their product by seeking to normalize and routinize consumption as part of sport spectatorship, celebration or commiseration. In essence, the ‘call to consume’ and ‘call to celebrate’ strategies create the potential for alcohol consumption to become ritualized within the nature of sport, where tribal and repetitive behaviors (from superstitions to choreographed audience participation) are well documented,’ states a report titled ‘Merging sport and drinking cultures through social media’ by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), Australia.

Similar to what the FARE report suggests, a link between local sport and alcohol can be found. For instance, Carlsberg has a Facebook page cleverly titled, ‘probably the best.’ If one skims through the page posts, it is obvious how sport and alcohol promotions are linked. However, the page posts go beyond sport. Through clever marketing, the page normalizes alcohol use and introduces alcohol to day to day life, even family celebrations like fathers’ day. How effective is the page? ‘Probably the best’ has 19,000 ‘likes’ whereas ADIC has less than 9,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook. This goes on to underscore just how effective alcohol and tobacco campaigns have been in Sri Lanka, especially on social media.
Thus it is evident that it’s time for anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol organizations to embrace latest technology for their campaigns. If a country free of alcohol and tobacco is to be achieved in the near future, social media should be used as a platform to raise awareness about the adverse effects of alcohol and tobacco.

While it may seem the anti-alcohol and anti-tobacco organizations are already lagging behind, it’s never too late to start. Since the period between July 9 and August 9 has been declared as drug prevention month, a National Campaign for Drug Prevention has been launched. The outline of the program includes daily awareness programs, messages against tobacco use and alcohol consumption, not screening any substances and changing the mindset people have about alcohol and tobacco use.

However, looking at the use of social media to promote alcohol and tobacco, it is important that the program gives social media campaigns extra attention and that they use social media effectively to raise awareness and reduce the consumption and use of alcohol, tobacco and other substances.