While Pierce Brosnan has distanced himself from his Pan Bahar advertisement, claiming he did not authorise the use of his image to endorse pan masala, many Indian celebrities openly support brands that sell tobacco or other carcinogenic products.

It is common to see a famous sports person or movie star endorsing soda water, music compact discs and mouth fresheners that are brand extensions for companies that market alcohol, pan masala or tobacco by the same brand names. This is called surrogate advertising, since under section 5 of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, all kinds of advertising of tobacco products, direct and indirect, are prohibited.

But this law is hardly implemented.

Section 7 of the Cable and Television Network Act, 1994, clearly prohibits any direct or indirect advertisement of tobacco and alcohol. Besides, section 77 of the amended Juvenile Justice Act says that "it is an offence against a child if a person gives or causes to be given to any child any tobacco products”. By extension, promotion of tobacco and alcohol among minors could be considered a criminal offence.

Surrogate advertising

In India, celebrities are often treated as demi-gods. An example of this is the movie on cricketer MS Dhoni, which did superbly well at the box office. One way he has used his enormous popularity is to endorse a brand of liquor. Though the advertisement featuring him mentions soda water, it is clearly surrogate advertising for the company’s more popular alcohol line.

We also have Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan asking us to "make it large" with a music CD that bears the same name as a brand of alcohol. A pan masala company sponsors many prime-time movies and has Ajay Devgn as its brand ambassador. Everyone, including children, knows what products these companies are most famous for.

Advertising and young smokers

Tobacco, areca nut or supari, and alcohol are all proven carcinogens. By advertising for such companies, celebrities are encouraging the use of carcinogenic products. The advertisements tend to gain the attention of the youth by attaching fashion, glamour and sexual attraction to the products. Endorsements by celebrities add to the general acceptance of these products.

The 2009-'10 Global Youth Tobacco Survey, conducted by the World Health Organisation among schools with children between 13 years and 15 years, illustrates the impact of such advertising.

The survey found that 14.6% of youth currently use tobacco – 21%-24% of boys said that they thought smoking would get them more friends and make them look more attractive. At least three-fourths of those who participated in the survey remembered seeing pro-cigarette advertisements in the preceding month.

A systematic review published in 2003 concluded that tobacco advertising and promotion increase the likelihood of adolescents picking up smoking. Surveys in the United States have shown that most adolescents remember advertisements of tobacco and their logos. The ability of children to recall such information was also correlated with intent to smoke, initiation and level of consumption.

Time to say no

Such endorsements earn celebrities exorbitant amounts of money. Though it is often claimed by the companies that they are not advertising the products they cannot legally promote, the fact remains that surrogate advertising increases their brand recognition and sales as well.

There have been celebrities who have thought with their conscience and refused to do such advertisements. These include cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, badminton champion P Gopichand, pop singer Shaan and actors Ranbir Kapoor and Vivek Oberoi. They have valued the health and well-being of the general public over endorsing carcinogenic products for monetary gains. It is high time others do so too.

Akshat Malik is a research fellow with Tata Memorial Hospital. Pankaj Chaturvedi is professor, Head and Neck Surgery, Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai. PC Gupta is the director of Healis-Sekhsaria Institute of Public Health, Navi Mumbai.