A small victory against the tobacco epidemic: how even shop owners can be negatively affected by cigarette advertising!

British American Tobacco Rothmans cigarette poster displayed on shop front prior to the shop owner removing it.
British American Tobacco Rothmans cigarette poster displayed on shop front prior to the shop owner removing it.
Shopfront of previous photo after the British American Tobacco Rothmans cigarette poster was taken down by the shop owner.
Shopfront of previous photo after the British American Tobacco Rothmans cigarette poster was taken down by the shop owner.
British American Tobacco's Rothmans cigarette poster advertisement displayed to the left of a shop "window," before the shop owner pulled the poster down.
British American Tobacco’s Rothmans cigarette poster advertisement displayed to the left of a shop “window,” before the shop owner pulled the poster down.
British American Tobacco Rothmans cigarette poster was removed by the shop owner
British American Tobacco Rothmans cigarette poster was removed by the shop owner

Take a look at the four photos attached to this post. They show two shops in my neighbourhood “before” and “after” Rothmans cigarette posters were pulled down voluntarily, even happily, by the shop owners. It is a very small accomplishment in my own battle against tobacco company advertising to children and youth in low-income countries, but as small as the contribution is, any victory against the epidemic of tobacco-related diseases is worth having.

For a year now, posters advertising British American Tobacco’s Rothmans cigarettes have been appearing on shop fronts, especially in poor areas, of Addis Ababa. Recently, though, Ethiopia ratified (passed into law)the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, an international treaty consisting of regulations on tobacco advertising, packaging, sales, smoking in public places, and other aspects of tobacco issues. Once implemented and enforced, these posters should come down, and I have already come across several shop owners who say they have heard about the new laws and will be pulling their posters down.

However, because I am British and ashamed of a British-made cigarette being marketed to young people, and because I practised Medicine for 11 years and am deeply concerned about the emerging epidemic of tobacco-related diseases in developing countries, I have succeeded, with some Ethiopian friends, in getting a few of those Rothmans cigarette posters taken down.

When I moved into a new apartment recently, I looked out of my bedroom window and noticed one of those dreadful Rothmans cigarette posters on a shop front just outside of my apartment complex. The next day I visited the shop with an Ethiopian friend, who also is concerned about the posters. We spoke with the shop owner, a mild-mannered and good-natured man, who told us that someone came by and handed him the posters, plus packs of Rothmans cigarettes to sell. He put the poster up and had been selling the cigarettes, but he says he felt very uneasy about the whole thing because he never sold cigarettes before and he’s aware of how dangerous they are to health. He wouldn’t, he said, smoke himself and he certainly encourages his own kids not to smoke. He wasn’t aware that the posters were illegal in Ethiopia, and that Ethiopia had just passed some laws on cigarette advertising and sales. Within hours he pulled the poster down and told us that he felt so much better- that a huge burden had been taking off his mind. He was, he said, happy to be free of advertising and selling cigarettes!

Further down the same street, we spoke to another shop owner, a pleasant lady, who also told us that she felt uneasy about having a Rothmans cigarette poster on her shop front, but she admitted that it did help her make extra financial profits. However, she also felt bad about selling cigarettes, and she did not know that the posters were illegal in Ethiopia, or that Ethiopia had ratified the WHO tobacco treaty recently. She was annoyed that “some people” had given her the poster without her knowing that it was illegal. She, too, took down her poster and said she felt so much better now she was no longer “encouraging young people to smoke.” You could see from her wide smile how happy she was about her action.

Another lady who runs a neighbouring store also turned her Rothmans cigarette poster around so that the advertisement was not visible from the outside. She said that she had heard about the new tobacco laws that were going to be enforced, so she was turning the posters around in anticipation of the new rules.

There was only one more shop displaying a Rothmans cigarette poster between my apartment and the end of the half-a-mile-long street where I live. So a few days later, my Ethiopian friend and I took a challenge to see if we could inform the owner of this shop about the new laws and health dangers of tobacco. This shop owner, again, had no idea that the posters were illegal, though he was aware that smoking is bad for peoples’ health. Although he didn’t pull down the poster, within days he had placed a piece of white paper, advertising other items in his shop, over the picture of the cigarette box on the poster, which essentially rendered the Rothmans advertisement ineffective!

Personally, I felt so relieved that we had, in the space of a week, managed, positively and humanly, without threats or aggression, to remove evidence of Rothmans cigarette advertising down the whole street where I live, and I feel that the street is so much more “healthy” and that we have reduced the risk of at least a few precious young people from being enticed to smoke cigarettes in the area.

I did learn from this experience that even shop owners who display cigarette posters often feel uneasy about them and get a sense of immense relief from removing the advertisements.

I mentioned my success to several of my students at the local university, whom I have taught about the health hazards of tobacco use and the impending epidemic of tobacco-related diseases in developing countries, and I’m impressed at how concerned many of the students are. Indeed, one student told me that he had managed to persuade several shop owners to take down their Rothmans cigarette posters just by educating them about the new tobacco laws and the health risks of smoking, especially for young people.

Although Rothmans posters continue to be abundant in this city, I feel confident that they will come down, and I (and my students, I hope) will continue positively to encourage individual shop owners to take down their cigarette posters. With enforcement of WHO tobacco regulations by Ethiopian authorities, I look forward to the time when I will not see any Rothmans cigarette posters on any shop fronts here. More importantly, I believe that Ethiopia, which currently has low smoking rates, has a huge potential to prevent an epidemic of tobacco-related diseases from happening in the future, and to be an example to the rest of the world in the global battle against tobacco-related diseases.

Addendum: Within a month after this post was written, I am delighted to say that every Rothmans cigarette poster in Addis Ababa (and there were hundreds “decorating” the city) has been pulled down. A new post about this will appear shortly.

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