Leading lights of development... tobacco companies employing free sample-dispensing "promo-tion girls" elicit numerous complaints by tobacco opponents
The Phnom Penh office of British American Tobacco (BAT) has been forced to withdraw
a recent newspaper advertisement that falsely stated an official relationship between
BAT and Australia's Monash University.
Spokesmen for BAT Cambodia have told the Post that a BAT-funded Australian scholarship
advertised in local Khmer and English-language papers on Jan 5 and Jan 24 falsely
stated that the scholarship was offered "...in association with Monash University...".
While Monash has not opted to take legal action against BAT, the incident marks the
second time in four months that the transnational company has landed itself in murky
On November 1 last year, BAT's UK headquarters was raided by Britain's Department
of Trade and Industry as part of an investigation into the company's alleged role
in the international cigarette smuggling trade.
Monash was tipped to the ad deception by a Phnom Penh-based World Health Organization
consultant who specializes in anti-tobacco advocacy.
"I was suspicious that Monash University would condone working in association
with BAT," the WHO consultant said. "Particularly considering that Australia
has attempted to regulate tobacco advertising and sponsorship, something that has
not yet happened in Cambodia."
BAT now admits there has never been a working relationship between the company and
Monash, and that the wording of the ad was "a mistake".
"It was very much a mistake in the wording," BAT Cambodia Corporate Communications
Manager Kun Lim said. "Monash asked us to change the ad and make sure in future
there's no mention [of Monash]."
Brendan Johnson, BAT Cambodia's Training and Development Manager, said the error
resulted from the fact that BAT had been negotiating with Monash in the hope of an
official partnership for the scholarship.
"We used the university's name without prior permission, and in future we won't
do that," he said.
But according to the WHO consultant, the insistence of BAT that the ad's wording
was non-intentional is not credible.
"It was not accidental," he said of BAT's attempt to falsely link itself
to Monash. "It is similar to attempts by other big tobacco companies which pour
millions of dollars into proving how good they are when in fact they're producing
a product that has been proven to be dangerous."
The WHO consultant added that the deceptive language used in the BAT ad did not end
with the reference to Monash University.
"The ad's statement that the beneficiary of the BAT scholarship would, upon
completion of a two year MBA program, '...return and contribute to the development
of Cambodia' was also highly misleading," he said. "The fact is that the
person who won the scholarship is expected to work for BAT."
Absolutely true, according to Johnson, who says that the length of service the scholarship
winner would have to provide BAT was still under consideration.
Yel Daravuth, Program Manager for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency's (ADRA)
anti-smoking advocacy campaign, says that the deceptive BAT ad is part of a long
established "anything goes" pattern of self-promotion by international
cigarette companies in Cambodia.
According to Daravuth, international cigarette companies are taking advantage of
Cambodia's lack of legal regulation of tobacco advertising and are promoting their
product through everything from sport and entertainment sponsorships to free cigarette
give-aways by bar-hopping "promotion girls".
BAT Cambodia General Manager M.A. Mokaddem rejects such criticism, describing BAT
as an excellent corporate citizen whose contributions to Cambodia's human resource
training and GDP were providing vital assistance to the Kingdom's development.
But when asked to comment on the possible impact of marketing a product that would
contribute to the eventual disability and death of many of its consumers from heart
disease and lung cancer, Mokaddem was more tight-lipped.
"That's a very debatable issue," he said of the widely-accepted medical
link between smoking and morbidity. "I'm not going to go into this."