/ 23 October 2008

Where there’s smoke …

Friday night and I’m unwinding at Tilt, a new hip-hop hang-out for the young and the hot in Braamfontein. A guy comes up and asks me if I smoke. I blush, thinking he is hitting on me, but he explains that he would like to offer me something ”exclusive”.

Now I think he is selling drugs. He leans closer as he presents me with an ”exclusive new cigarette” called Black and launches into a passionate 10-minute history lesson on why this thin black cigarette, which smells like old urine, is so wonderful.

Since The Tobacco Products Control Amendment Act was passed in 1999, tobacco companies have had to find new ways to reach their target market. The Act bans all advertising and promotion of tobacco products, including sponsorships and free distribution. Cigarette brands now use one-on-one communication strategies to reach existing and prospective customers and exclusive underground cigarette parties, held in glamorous mansions and other upmarket venues. These are the latest ”It” parties where smokers network and try out new brands while being treated to a glam — and often free — night out.

Buchule Jack (26), a Johannesburg investment manager, said he has been invited to a number of Dunhill and Twenty Brand parties. ”They all throw nice parties all the time. Twenty Brand being the newest brand on the market, they are throwing the most parties right now.

”My friends and I receive emails inviting us to the parties; you then reply and are put on a guest list and are allowed to bring a few friends along. On each table there is food and free boxes of cigarettes. We also get free drinks through the night.”

The different brands hire reps to go out to find smokers and possible smokers at popular clubs, restaurants and universities. It seems their main focus is young, black, professional women.

Zanele Khoza (29), a content producer from Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg, said a Dunhill rep came to visit her at her office and invited her to one of its parties. ”The rep brought me some gifts — a whisky flask, a branded key holder, a branded lanyard, magazines — and asked me how many friends I wanted to bring to the exclusive party.”

The party was at Walter Sisulu Square in Soweto, said Khoza. The crowd was multiracial and young.

”The Dunhill reps looked like models — beautiful, skinny, tall and dressed glamorously — and they all had Dunhill cigarettes in their mouths the whole night. They are like walking adverts.”

At the end of each party the guests/customers are given magazines advertising Dunhill products and the reps follow up with them through phone calls to find out how they found the evening.

The next party was held at yet another fancy club in Soweto. Said Khoza: ”This party was exclusively for women. We were treated to a makeover, a free massage and a facial while sipping champagne.” Khoza said information about the parties is kept fairly low-key. ”You receive an SMS that tells you to watch out for an exclusive event coming up soon. A week or so later you are invited as a guest to the event and told to keep watching your phone for more details about where it will be held.”

Peter Ucko, director of the National Council Against Smoking, said the secrecy and exclusivity is part of the allure that attracts young people to the cigarette parties. Ucko believed the tobacco companies are breaking the law. ”We are lobbying to get the law tightened. The Tobacco Products Control Amendment Bill is on the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) agenda for adoption. The Bill proposes further restrictions on advertising, only permitting those at the point of sale and in trade communication.”

Though the law says it is illegal to distribute tobacco products for free, a Melville bar owner, who preferred not to be named, said he often has Kent reps coming into his bar to give customers free packs of cigarettes and lighters. ”They usually come around every three months — three blonde girls and a guy dressed in branded little tops. The customers love it; beautiful girls giving them free cigarettes. It’s free marketing for me too.”

Spokesperson for British American Tobacco (BAT) South Africa Anthea Abraham said the Act permits communication with consumers at the point of sale. ”As a responsible tobacco company we use only the channels availed to us by legislation.”