A set of cute, colourful key rings, T-shirts and towels with eye-catching designs, at first glance, these knick-knacks may look attractive and harmless. But with logos or trademarks of cigarette brands on them these products, cigarette promotional items (CPIs), are technically illegal.
Yet few people are aware of the legal implications of these dubious goods, viewed by the anti-smoking lobby as a tactic of cigarette manufacturers to entice young people into smoking.
The tactics are a response to stringent government measures to control tobacco consumption.
In Thailand, the strict rules _ plus aggressive anti-smoking campaigns on the part of health organisations _ resulted in a dramatic decrease in the smoking rate across almost all age groups over the past two decades, except those in the under-25 age bracket. Higher smoking rates are found only in young people, aged 15-18 and 19-24, with the former rising from 6.44% in 2001 to 7.62% in 2009 and the latter from 20.9% in 2004 to 22.1% in 2009.
Anti-smoking campaigners link the increase in the number of young smokers to the ubiquity of CPIs which, in Thailand, are available in the form of lighters (31.6%); key holders (26.3%); magnets (18.4%); and T-shirts (10.5%), while cigarette cases, hats, stickers, jackets, and 3D puzzles constitute 2.6% each of the total CPIs.
"Tobacco companies have always come up with new ways to reach customers and potential new consumers," said Dr Hatai Chitanondh, president of Thailand Health Promotion Institute of the National Health Foundation. A research study suggested that knick-knacks that flaunt cigarette trademark or logos may foster smoking among youths. At the very least, CPIs co-relate with tobacco brand recognition in children. The study covered 1,265 youngsters in grade 6 to 12 in US public schools, and examined the relationship between CPIs ownership and smoking behaviour among students.
The findings showed that one-third of students owned promotional products. The survey also suggested that school kids who had promotional merchandise in their possession were four times more likely to be smokers, compared with those without such products. These figures prompted many countries to ban the sale and distribution of CPIs.
Last year in Thailand, Dr Wonpen Kaewpan from the Department of Public Health Nursing inspected 15 areas in Bangkok. There were 10 areas where CPIs were sold, including Victory Monument, Pratunam, Siam Centre, Silom, Sukhumvit, Chatuchak weekend market, Khao San Road, Sampeng, Khlong Tom, and Bang Khae, while five areas that were free of CPIs were Central Pin Klao, King Power, Yaowarat, Pom Prap Sattru Phai and the market under Rama I Memorial Bridge.
Most of CPIs found in the survey bore imported tobacco brands, with Marlboro (47.4%) being the most popular. The most popular local brands were Krongthip and Falling Rain (Sai Fon).
"The merchandise is popular amongst both local and foreign consumers," said Prof Wonpen. "Most Thai people buy these items because they are cheap and cute. While most foreigners buy keyrings and magnets as they make good souvenirs given their light weight."
Keyrings that advertise cigarette trademarks are sold at 60 baht for a dozen and 10 baht each, lighters at 100-450 baht, 3D puzzles at 35 baht each, secondhand hats at 70 baht and stickers at 50 baht each, T-shirts at 100 baht and jackets at 450 baht.
"Sellers told me that keyrings and magnets on the market are imported from Malaysia," said the professor. "They don't know that CPIs are illegal. They said they are just selling them.
"These items are widely available on the market. That worries me a lot," said Dr Hatai. "I'm aware that such merchandise may attract new smokers."
He alleged that CPIs are partly produced by cigarette companies for retail shops to distribute to clients.
Many of them are imported for sale. Among them are clocks with cigarette trademarks and logo.
"Cigarette logos and trademarks are well designed to attract users," said Prof Wonpen. Philip Morris (Thailand), however, denied the allegation.
"We don't produce, distribute or commission any promotional items as we are aware of the current Tobacco Product Control Act that clearly prohibits this type of promotion, and we've complied with the law," Onanong Pratakphiriya, Philip Morris' manager for communications and external affairs, said in a telephone interview with Life.
Anakapon Techakriengkrai, a 32-year-old businessman who began smoking when he was in high school, said he has promotional merchandise, particularly cigarette paraphernalia including lighters and ashtrays, in his possession.
"I don't buy them. I've got them as complimentary items when buying cartons of cigarettes overseas during sale promotions," he said, adding that only one keyring came with a carton of cigarettes he bought from a local shop. In the past, he noted, there was a lot more promotional merchandise advertising cigarette trademarks and brands. They came in the form of everyday items including mugs, towels, umbrellas, hats and bags.
"I usually got them from stores as New Year gifts," he said.
Anakapon said cigarette trademarks and logos are influential in making a decision on which brand he will go for.
"Personally, I think the initiation of smoking behaviour involves many factors, not a single one," he said. "One is likely to become a smoker if a parent or a family member smokes. Peer pressure is a major cause."
The Tobacco Product Control Act 1992 (Section 8) says that no person shall be allowed to advertise tobacco products or display the name or mark of tobacco products in printed form, via radio and television broadcast or any other advertisable medium, or use the name or mark of tobacco products in shows, services, or any other activity that enables the public to recognise the name or trademark of the product. Violators are liable to a fine of up to 200,000 baht.
"The law exists but there is no effective enforcement," said Dr Hatai.
"Since there is no information identifying the producers of such items, it's hard to detect."
To help control such items, Assoc Prof Dr Nauwarut Charoenca of the Department of Sanitary Engineering, Mahidol University, said it's very important for the government to inform sellers that sale of CPIs is illegal. However, at the same time the authorities have to step up law enforcement.
"Don't become a victim by buying them; otherwise, you are helping tobacco companies to promote their trademark and logo," Prof Nauwarut said.
On the part of consumers, anyone wearing a T-shirt with a cigarette logo or trademark in public is not considered a violator of the law, Dr Hatai explained. However, it will be different if a group of people put on the T-shirts in question and appear together in a public place: that may be against the law.
"The law emphasises intention and other contexts," he said.
Anakapon said it's too easy to get hold of cigarettes in Thailand, which induces young people to develop a smoking habit.
Today, there are about 500,000 retail shops selling tobacco nationwide.
"Cigarette shops are everywhere," he said. "Just look for a 'cigarette sold here' sign, and anyone with just 5 baht in their pocket can buy a stick."