May 20, 2022

Bollywood and Tobacco On and Off Screen

Bollywood actor, Akshay Kumar, recently experienced backlash for appearing in an old cigarette ad after endorsing a pan masala product owned by a tobacco company. Kumar endorsed a cardamom product owned by a tobacco brand, a strategy called surrogate advertising that is used to promote smokeless tobacco products. In November 2021 popular Bollywood actor, Amitabh Bachchan, also received backlash for endorsing a pan masala product. In India, more than 21% of adults and more than 4% of youth who are 13 to 15 years of age use smokeless tobacco. At the same time, 90% of all oral cancer cases are due to tobacco use. After receiving a great deal of public criticism, Kumar issued a public statement on Twitter noting that “I have not and I will not endorse tobacco,” however his ad will still run for the term of the contract. Critics on Twitter were also quick to discover and share an old advertisement wherein Kumar promoted Red and White cigarettes. Bachchan terminated his contract with the pan masala brand and returned his payment for the promotion, claiming he did not know it was surrogate advertising, but the ads continue to air even after the actor served legal notice to the brand. These scenarios have been deemed a “public relations masterstroke” as pan masala brands continue to advertise their products while the actors preserve their reputations. While Kumar may be known for his healthy lifestyle, which does not include smoking, tobacco use also continues to be common among a number of popular Bollywood actors.

Despite these Bollywood actors’ off-screen behaviors, India has strong tobacco-free film and television rules regulating on-screen tobacco use depictions that have been in place since 2012. These rules require that any film or television program with tobacco use include 1) anti-tobacco disclaimers and health spots highlighting the harmful effects of tobacco use before and at the intermission, and 2) an onscreen anti-tobacco message during any tobacco use in the film or program. A 2021 study conducted by researchers in India, the World Health Organization, and UCSF, “Changes in tobacco depictions after implementation of tobacco-free film and TV rules in Bollywood films in India: a trend analysis,” shows that these rules have been enormously effective in reducing tobacco use depictions, with tobacco use depictions in Bollywood films decreasing substantially following implementation.

Bollywood and India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting have attempted to undermine India’s rules for tobacco use depictions in film and television, proposing to replace anti-tobacco ads with their own short films. India’s health ministry recognized that Bollywood would likely dilute anti-tobacco messages, and the rules remain intact: the anti-tobacco ads that are required to appear in programming with tobacco use depictions are government sponsored and mandated to be aired in all movies and television programs having tobacco imagery.

A 2020 Times of India article highlights Bollywood actors who have quit smoking. Popular actors Ranbir Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Ajay Devgn have also reportedly attempted to quit smoking. Less tobacco use in Bollywood, both on and off screen, may also discourage Bollywood stars from endorsing tobacco products and brands and surrogate products and brands. However, like Akshay Kumar several Bollywood actors continue to endorse surrogate products owned by tobacco brands.

Special thanks to Amit Yadav, PhD for his review of and contributions to this blog post. Dr. Yadav was a Research Fellow at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education from 2019-2020.