Last Wednesday Gallaher Tobacco, without any fuss, joined its main UK rival Imperial Tobacco in entering the world of multimedia.
It posted a Website on the Internet. The estimated cost for creating such a site is less than 1,000. The equivalent price for one of the press or poster ads, which it may be banned from using when the Government introduces a Europe-wide ban on tobacco advertising, is more than 10,000.
The Gallaher Website, featuring financial information and photographs of its top-selling brands, including Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges, appears to be testing the water in an unregulated area. The Imperial site contains the company’s annual report, with pack shots of the Embassy, Lambert & Butler and John Player brands plus photographs of people buying them. It has been on the Internet since last May.
Neither site contains any age restriction or even any apparent health warning on its opening page.
And while tobacco firms deny this is advertising by the back door, it is significant that companies facing increasingly tight restrictions on advertising and promotion are experimenting with the Inter net – one of the most unregul ated forms of media available – to communicate.
The anti-smoking pressure group Action on Smoking & Health (ASH) has previously criticised sites which it believes promote tobacco, including those for the British American Tobacco-owned Lucky Strike and German brand West. It sees the Gallaher and Imperial sites as primarily a platform for providing financial information. But it is wary.
ASH spokeswoman Amanda Sandford says: “The big question remains the potential of the sites and what they [the tobacco companies] might be tempted to do. I think it would be different if individual brands had their own sites. There’s no need to have one other than to promote the brand.”
In the UK at present, tobacco firms are subject to a voluntary agreement on advertising and promotion signed annually by the Department of Health and the Tobacco Manufacturers Association. Although there are specific categories relating to press, posters, television and radio advertising, there is no section exclusively governing the Internet.
However paragraph 2.17 of the voluntary agreement says: “The industry will undertake not to advertise tobacco products on computer games or on any other computer equipment or software which is available to, or likely to be seen by, members of the public.” It is this section which is being applied to the Net.
The tobacco companies believe the voluntary agreement prevents them from setting up branded sites, although there is confusion within the industry as to what they can and cannot do. But what is the difference anyway? The Gallaher and Imperial sites may not be called Silk Cut or Embassy Regal but they do contain brand data and graphics.
Other sites, such as the one for the Whitbread Round the World yacht race include attractive graphics for Silk Cut, one of the race sponsors. As do those for Formula One motor racing.
The point is that at the moment there are no parameters for any advertiser on the Internet – there is no legal barrier to prevent UK tobacco firms promoting, or indeed selling, tobacco through this medium. The companies believe paragraph 2.17 prevents this but the legal position is unclear.
TMA executive director for industrial affairs John Carlisle says: “We have agreed with the DoH that the Internet will not carry any form of tobacco advertising. As we understand it we can’t advertise or sell on the Internet.”
Imperial Tobacco’s group communications manager, Liz Buckingham, says: “There are no plans to do anything other than provide corporate information. The voluntary agreement prevents us from setting up individual branded sites.
“It is very clear to me that you can’t advertise tobacco brands on computer equipment. To sell [on the Internet] you presumably have to have the brand up, therefore it is a form of advertising. That would be outside the terms of the voluntary agreement,” says Buckingham.
A Health department spokeswoman says: “The tobacco company home pages which don’t involve tobacco advertising won’t be in breach of that voluntary agreement.”
But, the Internet is a new med-ium. And Chris Reed, spokesman for the Advertising Standards Authority, which monitors the sector through its Electronic Media Standing Group, admits that the definition of an ad on the Internet is a grey area.
“The industry is trying to draw a distinction between advertising and editorial on a Website,” says Reed. “The question is should everything on a site be considered advertising or should the definit ion be limited to brand-specific information.”
Neither the ASA nor the Com-mittee for Monitoring Agree ments on Tobacco Advertising & Sponsorship, which oversees the voluntary agreement, have received any complaints about tobacco advertising on the Internet.
Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher say their home pages offer a service to investors. But ASH is keeping a close eye on them. Sandford says: “They [tobacco firms] are obviously testing the water and I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to push the agreement to the limit to see what they can get away with.”
The pressure group is particularly concerned about Websites used as part of brand-stretching exercises. In a recent report the group refers to a number of sites which it considers promote tobacco, including one based in Germany for the brand West. It also refers to a California-based site called Circuit Breaker, which it claims started off as an indirect promotion for Lucky Strike and is now openly sponsored by Brown & Williamson.
ASH also claims that the UK-based Rizla Website promotes tobacco although, not being a tobacco product, Rizla is not bound by restrictions on advertising. Yet the company, which was taken over by Imperial Tobacco last year, has felt the need to place a warning on the front page of its Website for anyone aged under 18 not to proceed further.
Information technology solicitor Bina Cunningham, of Willough-by & Partners, says: “I think it is very difficult for companies. There is no one law that governs the whole of the Internet. Anyone who advertises or has a Website has to be aware of the laws in individual countries.”
The Government White Paper on smoking, due out this summer, will include proposals on advertising and sponsorship but it is not expected to address the Internet.
However, activity on the Internet will be subjected to the European Directive on advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products as and when it is implemented by member states. But the directive will have little effect when it comes to monitoring Websites set up by companies outside the EC.
Faced with increasing regulation, the tobacco companies have spent the past 30 years finding new ways to promote their brands. The Internet – a medium which is not yet subject to any form of formal regulation – looks like it could be the latest.