Georgian School Kids Being Targeted by Global Tobacco Companies: Raising Awareness

It is universally understood that the effects of smoking lead to high risks of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory difficulties. The thought that our children are deliberately exposed to the possibility of buying or consuming cigarettes is shocking. The NGO Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, located in the United States, is running a new international campaign to publicize strategies by global tobacco companies and to counter their efforts to offer cigarettes to children.

Based on extensive research by the Institute of Global Tobacco Control at John Hopkins University (US) and a published article by The Guardian, Georgia is among 22 countries worldwide in which young school children are overwhelmingly exposed to tobacco products near their schools. Philipp Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Brands are the major tobacco companies outside of China offering cigarettes, which 20% of the global population consumes on a regular basis. The brands in front of school buildings in Georgia are mostly from the former two corporations.

“The consistent presence of Philip Morris and British American Tobacco brands prominently displayed and sold near to elementary schools, in country after country, cannot be a coincidence. This is clear evidence that these giant tobacco companies are targeting young children near their schools, often in countries where laws are weak and the companies think they can get away with this despicable behavior,” said Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The companies deny all allegations and emphasize their repeated efforts to protect young people from products which are exclusively sold to adults. However, their statements operate in an environment of legal loopholes. It is easy to stick to tobacco regulations if they are weak or not enforced. Additionally, as Philipp Morris claims, a 100-meter distance from school buildings is not enough. “These companies’ actions show why they can’t be taken seriously when they claim to be responsible entities that are helping to solve the tobacco problem. The targeting of kids near schools leaves no doubt that they’re the main cause of the problem, not the solution,” insists Myers.

A report on tobacco marketing strategies in Georgia published by John Hopkins has analyzed school buildings in the greater Tbilisi area and found hundreds of retail stores, which have prominent cigarette advertisements displayed. The report has also measured the distance between the school buildings and the stores, indicating a 250-meter radius as the crucial zone within which stores should not be allowed to sell cigarettes in a seductive manner. 98 schools have been examined for differences in product placements and ad characteristics. In addition, the point-of-sales were examined for their display of health messages and regulations, which are obligatory by law to highlight dangers and age restrictions on cigarettes.

The results were disappointing, indicating a huge need to better regulate and control the safety of school children. Out of 640 retailers within the 250-meter radius, 512 sold tobacco, but just 13 stores indicated the health messages required by the Georgian Ministry of Health. Even more disappointingly, of the 99 points-of-sales within eyesight of the schools, none were displaying health messages. Although the figures show a slight improvement when it comes to the display of age restrictions, the majority of retailers don’t ensure the necessary safety measures required.

Various reasons allow tobacco companies to act with such behavior. “Georgia is targeted by tobacco companies because of its political prominence in the region. Tobacco companies fear that strong tobacco control legislation in Georgia would encourage neighboring countries to pass their own tobacco control laws and limit their profits across the region,” explains Josh Abrams, Director of Eurasia Programs for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. When asked whether we can actually blame tobacco companies, or the points-of-sales themselves, he answers: “We’ve seen the same patterns in country after country. This isn’t an accident. Targeting children around schools, playgrounds and other child-friendly spaces is a tactic used by global tobacco companies to gain new customers. We have evidence from around the globe that shops closer to schools and other child-friendly places are given incentives to carry tobacco and tobacco advertisements. Shopkeepers are often paid money or given free products to put up advertisements.”

Even more striking are the strategies used to advertise tobacco products to our youth. Many retailers employ graphics and place the tobacco shelves very centrally to draw the visitor’s attention to the cigarette packages. When placed centrally, visitors can’t escape the advertisements. More vicious strategies take advantage of typical products usually bought by school children, such as sweets or snacks. The tobacco products are placed close by or right in the midst of them; easily accessible to kids while they search for their desired snack. Although less frequent in Georgia, many other countries experience issues with retail stores using lit up signage to draw additional attention to the various tobacco brands available at the store. Strikingly, the tobacco companies often sponsor the signage as they carry the names of specific brands on them.

There are multiple solutions which students and teachers can employ to improve the situation around their schools and raise the necessary awareness. Teachers and educators can help their students by encouraging government officials to adopt strict marketing regulations for tobacco companies that prevent them from marketing these deadly products to children. “Teachers, parents, and students can also visit to download an app where they can report tobacco companies targeting kids in their own neighborhood,” says Abrams.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids encourages citizens to draw attention to legal breaches by retail stores. When encountering a store without appropriate health messages or sneaky product placements, uploading a photo or video onto the platform of the campaign allows Abrams and his team to inform the government and spur the introduction of tobacco bans.

Political solutions are inescapable. Despite the existence of adequate laws and the recent improvement of tobacco regulations, implementation and control are very much lacking. “The Georgian government actually amended the tobacco control law last year to ban tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship and closed many of the existing loopholes that allow for this type of advertising to take place around schools. The best way for the government to take action against tobacco companies targeting Georgia’s children is to act swiftly to implement these amendments after they go into effect in May 2018,” Abrams insists.

The report concludes by discussing the most displayed brands in Georgia, which are Winston, Marlboro, Kent, Parliament, and Camel, and calls for a complete ban of tobacco products around schools, in line with the WHO Framework Convention of Tobacco Control recommendations.

Benjamin Music

15 March 2018 18:45