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(Aug. 27, 2001) JOHANNESBURG -- South Africa's National Council Against Smoking is taking legal advice on a growing form of "dark marketing" by the tobacco industry: smoking parties.

British American Tobacco, which supplies about 95% of the market, earlier this year began running parties for adult smokers at venues in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban, the country's four biggest cities.

People attending the parties, which feature music performances by top artists, are mainly young adults, and attendance has reportedly quadrupled since the parties were first held.

The council argues this is in contravention of the amendments passed last November to the Tobacco Products Act banning advertising and promotion of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

"[British American Tobacco] is trying to create a feeling among smokers that they are part of a privileged in-group," said council Executive Director Dr. Yussuf Saloojee. "I don't know if it is illegal, but it is very close to the edge. It is encouraging a spirit of defiance against the law."

But British American insists it is acting within the law. "They are consumer relations events," said company spokesman Simon Millson. "The law allows us to communicate one-on-one with our consumers as long as they are adults. There is no product branding at this events, and no free products are handed out, but cigarettes are on sale in vending machines at the venue. Because we are not allowed to advertise, we need to maintain trade and customer relations."

Separate events are held for smokers of different products, which include Lucky Strike, Peter Stuyvesant and Dunhill. A promotion held last year shortly before the new law came into effect offered a prize of a trip into space on the first commercial space flight, and this contributed massively to building the Peter Stuyvesant database of users.

Guests are asked to provide proof that they are over 18. Thumbprints are scanned at the door, and only members are allowed entry. Membership is free, and news about the venue of the next party is provided on a Web site where visitors play a game that tells them where to collect the free tickets. Although the events appear to be held secretly, Mr. Millson said the appearance of secrecy came about only because the tobacco industry is banned from advertising such events.

South Africa's anti-smoking legislation is among the most uncompromising in the world, but it is running into problems. For example, Police Chief Jackie Selebi last week admitted that the police do not have the manpower to enforce the law against smoking in public places. The law forbids smoking in all public buildings, such as restaurants, hotels and shopping malls, except in specially designated areas that are sealed off by permanent walling and are fed by independent air conditioning.

But the law is largely being ignored, particularly in bars, and no prosecutions have been mounted.

Said Dr. Saloojee: "Our battle is far from won. Once there is an attitude that the law is irrelevant, then others will challenge it." -- Tony Koenderman

Copyright August 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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