Lithuania stomps out tobacco ads

  • 1999-05-20
  • By Paul Beckman
VILNIUS - The Marlboro Man is a powerful image. The rough and tumble cowboy, with a cigarette in his mouth and horse under his rear, appears prepared to handle anything thrown at him.

And although his native United States has subjected this and other tobacco icons to a series of head slaps and eye pokes in recent years, the smoker-friendly shores of Lithuania seemed a safe haven - a place where the Marlboro Man and his buddies could always ride free. But times change and the Lithuanian Parliament voted to send the nicotine cowboy packing.

MPs overwhelmingly passed a bill which will forbid tobacco advertising beginning in the year 2000. Proponents are calling the move a victory in the crusade against a harmful product. Critics, on the other hand, claim the regulation may only work to seriously damage the health of companies while bypassing the rights of producers and consumers.

On May 11, 52 Parliament members voted in favor of the ban, 10 against and 13 abstained. Tobacco companies now only have until year's end to advertise their products.

"The tobacco control law is good and it's the right time for it," said parliamentary health committee adviser Virginija Sukaitiene. "Actually, tobacco ads have not been allowed since 1996, but they haven't been controlled."

Sukaitiene, however, seemed sure the advertisements would be controlled in accordance with the new law.

The 23 MPs who chose not to vote in favor of the ban offered a variety of reasons for their decision. Deputy Parliament Chairman Andrius Kubilius abstained because he felt with no cigarette advertising allowed, the information about the risks would also diminish. Central faction member Arunas Grumadas voted against the ban because he felt the law would not be effective.

"[It looks like] we want to be more saintly than the pope in Rome," Grumadas complained.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris, producer of Marlboro and other top-selling brands, has a factory in the Lithuanian coastal city of Klaipeda. A representative in the company's Vilnius office told TBT that they would not comment about the law until they received more thorough information. But judging from the "Magnificent Seven" theme music which the company plays while a call is being transferred, the cowboy image will be hard to let go.

And even if the Phillip Morris company has not gotten around to complaining about the law, others have. An employee of Tora, the distributor of Regal and Superkings brands, said the new law will make life hard on the company.

"I don't know what to tell you," said the employee. "We will lose a lot of money without advertising. The cigarette brands we sell are new in Lithuania. So of course it will be harder."

Other folk also stand to lose out when huge cigarette ads in magazines, newspapers and on walls disappear. The thought of losing the full-page and double-page cigarette ads which regularly appear in "Veidas" magazine, for example, is making their advertising department squeamish.

"Our magazine lives off advertisements. And 35 percent to 40 percent of them are tobacco ads," said Egidijus Pocius of "Veidas" ad department. "Now we are planning to create some additional magazines, like one with a leisure and tourism theme for example. Maybe it will compensate [for lost advertisement revenue]."

According to Ugnius Trumpa, vice-president of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute, the expected revenue loss is not the only troubling aspect of Parliament's ban. He suggested the new law will interrupt the rights of both producers and consumers and has no chance of effectively discouraging smoking.

"[This ban] can be treated as a limitation of rights of market agents in selling and the rights of consumers to choose from a variety of products and have all information about a product," said Trumpa. "It is simply a populistic political trick. The tobacco advertisements are clearly not aggressive in attracting new consumers but are for those who already smoke. This is a useless regulation which wouldn't meet the aim it has [set] for itself."

Trumpa called the approach "narrow-minded" and added that in Soviet times, when there were no cigarette ads, many people chose to light up anyway.

Sukaitiene, however, seemed able to shrug off any criticism by quickly pointing out the new law puts Lithuania more in sync with tobacco advertising limitations found in American and other European countries.

"We're more concerned about health than the tobacco sellers," Sukaitiene concluded.