Israel's top cigarette firm drove haredi smoking addiction with targeted ads

Using loopholes to the laws banning the advertisement of tobacco products, Philip Morris International spent NIS 3 million on targeted smoking and vaping ads in the haredi sector.

 An ultra orthodox Jewish man smokes at the entrance of a store in the Kfar Habad. (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
An ultra orthodox Jewish man smokes at the entrance of a store in the Kfar Habad.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

Leading tobacco company Philip Morris International has exploited loopholes in the law banning the advertisement of smoking products in Israel, targeting ultra-Orthodox (haredi) communities in Israel with advertising campaigns.

A new research study conducted by doctoral student Amal Khayat and led by Dr. Yael Bar-Zeev along with researchers at the Hebrew University’s Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine was recently published in the academic journal Tobacco Control under the title “PMI’s IQOS and cigarette ads in Israeli media: a content analysis across regulatory periods and target population subgroups.”

Analyzing the marketing data of Philip Morris International, the researchers examined the differences in advertising expenditure over a four-year period across several major population groups in Israel — the general population, the haredi public, Arab speakers and Russian speakers.

“We conducted a comparison among the advertising expenditures for all Philip Morris cigarette brands and the IQOS brand (a heated-tobacco stick that entered the local market in December 2016), in light of regulatory changes that restricted the advertising of tobacco products,” said Khayat. 

While the restriction on advertising tobacco products led to a significant reduction in the company’s marketing expenditures, the study shows that the company exploited legal loopholes in the printed press in order to subvert the goals and increase its own profits as much as possible.

 Cigarette packets highlighting the health risks of smoking shown at a convenience store in Tzfat, northern Israel, December 20, 2019. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) Cigarette packets highlighting the health risks of smoking shown at a convenience store in Tzfat, northern Israel, December 20, 2019. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

“Even after the law came into effect, the company continued to spend almost NIS 3 million on advertising, with a focus on the printed press,” explains Dr. Bar-Zeev. “While the law restricted print advertising to one advertisement in each newspaper, 40% of the IQOS adverts placed were giant, two-page ads, effectively doubling the product’s advertising space while still being considered a single advert as allowed by the letter of the law.”

Another strategy used by Philip Morris was adding a QR code to the ads so that readers could scan and then view additional content, beyond that which was in the newspaper.

In addition, the ads featured people smoking IQOS devices in closed public spaces, despite the fact that the law forbids the use of any tobacco products in such areas. According to the researchers, ads like this give the impression that such behavior is legally permitted and so exploit the innocence of the majority of consumers, who are not aware of these distinctions.

Targeting the sector with the lowest smoking rates

The study also found that before the law came into effect, Philip Morris significantly increased its advertising to all the population groups examined, with a particular focus on the haredi population, which, prior to their targeted campaigns, had the lowest rates of smoking in Israel.

“Our data shows that since the introduction of the IQOS e-cigarettes, 216 targeted ads were published, of which 55% were created for the haredi public, six percent for the Arab public and the rest for the Russian-speaking public,” said Bar-Zeev.

Similarly, for regular cigarette brands, 87% of advertisements were targeted at the haredi population – a surprising finding, given the company’s repeated claims that it is only interested in marketing its products to existing smokers.

“We expected that the company would focus on populations with the highest rates of smoking in Israel – Arab men – and not on the population that had hardly any smokers,” said Bar-Zeev. 

 Jewish ultra orthodox boy dressed up in costume, smoke cigarettes durign the jewish holiday of Purim, in the ultra orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem. March 21, 2011.  (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90) Jewish ultra orthodox boy dressed up in costume, smoke cigarettes durign the jewish holiday of Purim, in the ultra orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem. March 21, 2011. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

Following the study findings, the 24th Knesset decided to cancel the exception for advertising in the printed press, but ultimately deferred implementation of this step for seven years. In discussions, a series of additional restrictions were decided upon for this interim period, including prohibitions on the use of coupons, QR codes, and those featuring cigarette packs that do not carry the mandatory plain packaging in adverts in the printed press. 

But Bar-Zeev concluded that this is merely “a drop in the ocean,” as the study has proved that the tobacco companies bypass such restrictions and find creative ways to continue marketing their products and getting a new generation of smokers addicted to them. The researchers argue that only a full and immediate ban on all forms of advertising, combined with strict enforcement of the law, can stop this happening.

Vaping can't really help you quit smoking

Meanwhile, a new study by researchers at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. found that adults who both vape and smoke are likely to continue smoking in the long run. The findings run counter to the industry’s message that vaping can help current smokers quit.

The researchers looked at data from the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health Study, which is a nationally representative, longitudinal study of tobacco use in the civilian, non-institutionalized American population and followed regular users of both cigarettes and e-cigarettes over five waves, starting in 2013 with annual follow up of smoking and vaping behavior.

Based on the data, the researchers found that over a six-year period, quitting vaping early but continuing to smoke was the most common pattern. The team found that 42% of participants fell into this category. Just 10% of study participants quit both vaping and smoking early, while 15% continued to use both products.

“This study suggests that at the population level, vaping may not help people kick the smoking habit,” said lead researcher Nandita Krishnan. “People who concurrently use e-cigarettes and cigarettes experience increased health risks and both products deliver nicotine, which is addictive. We should be trying to help them quit both smoking and vaping.”

In response to the report, Philip Morris said: "Our vision for a 'smoke-free future’ is to stop selling cigarettes in as many markets as possible worldwide. The right choice is not to start smoking - or to quit. At the same time, we believe those who continue to smoke deserve less harmful alternatives.   "That is why we have invested considerable resources in scientific research and developing reduced-exposure products as alternatives to smoking cigarettes. Thanks to the inventiveness and perseverance of our scientists and thousands of others at PMI—and an investment of over USD 9 billion in science-based innovation, we are on the right track to realizing this vision.

"These efforts were recognized by the FDA when the company's products received a modified risk tobacco product authorization (MRTP) in the United States with the information that 'scientific studies have shown that a complete switch from conventional cigarettes to IQOS significantly reduces the body's exposure to harmful chemicals.' Nearly 19 million adult smokers worldwide use smoke-free products developed by us, and the vast majority of them (13.5 million) have completely stopped smoking cigarettes.
"In reference to the marketing of our products, as in other areas of our activity, we operate according to the law and under stringent self-regulation. The company advertises in accordance with Israeli law, which permits the advertising of its products (both during the research period and today), and even reports this to the Ministry of Health as required by law."