Selling Death on Social Media: How bidis are reaching consumers online

Selling Death on Social Media: How bidis are reaching consumers online
India's unregulated bidi industry is exploiting the rapid growth of social media to market and sell its products to consumers.
India’s homegrown bidi industry is notoriously unregulated and is extending its reach into another space often lacking in oversight: social media.
 

While all tobacco products are marketed on the internet where restrictions are more difficult to enforce, the marketing strategies used for each product vary. Bidi companies tend to use direct marketing to sell their products online. This is a concern because exposure to bidi marketing leads to an increased likelihood of use among new and current consumers.1 Since not much is known about the prevalence of online bidi marketing, this report explores how and through which social media platforms bidis are marketed to consumers.

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Key Findings

  1. Bidis are openly marketed on social media with clear pictures of the product. In contrast, most tobacco products are promoted inconspicuously to comply with existing laws. 1
  2. We found at least 30 distinct Facebook pages for bidi companies. Many of these companies appear to be utilizing Facebook pages to facilitate sales.
  3. Bidis are being marketed on social media almost exclusively through Facebook (98%); 337 instances of marketing were observed on the platform during our data collection period.

Background
Why are bidis a threat to public health?

India is both the second largest producer and consumer of tobacco products worldwide.2 Of the 267 million tobacco users in India, nearly 72 million adults smoke bidis, making it the most widely used tobacco product in the country.3 Easily accessible across rural and urban areas, bidis are estimated to outsell cigarettes in India by 8-to-1.4 The widespread availability of bidis poses a threat to youth: 47% of users smoked their first bidi before their 10th birthday.5 Bidi smoke delivers more tar, carbon monoxide and nicotine than other cigarettes6 and severely increases the risk for several cancers, coronary heart disease and heart attacks.7

The health consequences of bidis extend to workers involved in the manufacturing process, who face an increased risk of aggravated tuberculosis and asthma, anemia, postural and eye problems, and gynecological difficulties.8 Unfortunately, with 89% of the bidi industry unregistered, most of these health problems are underreported and remain unaddressed.9 Bidis occupy a localized market, and are more often subcontracted to be produced in homes rather than factories.10 Home- based bidi production offers manufacturers certain advantages. Because bidis are less regulated than other

tobacco products, bidi manufacturers can avoid taxes, pay employees less than the minimum wage, and avoid
providing basic benefits. Low-income women and children constitute 90% of the bidi workforce, with children comprising as much as 15%-25% of total employment in the bidi industry.9,11 A dangerous loophole in India’s child labor laws does not cover children who help their families meet stringent bidi-rolling quotas.12,13

The unorganized structure of the bidi industry gives it an advantage over the cigarette industry. While India has made strides to discourage smoking cigarettes by adopting a number of policies, including higher taxes and graphic health warnings, there has been minimal progress applying these same laws to bidis.14 Consequently, bidis continue to be sold at significantly lower prices and in packaging without clear health warnings, attracting a consumer base that tends to have lower levels of income and education than those who use other tobacco products.3,15
Bidis are ubiquitously sold by retailers, including small grocery stores, paan bidi shops, street vendors and tobacco specialists.15 They are commonly marketed at these points of sale16 through advertisements and colorful packaging, which may feature deities17 and sports stars.18
 

Photo by Pallavi Puri (July 2019)

Photo by Pallavi Puri (July 2019)

 
 

Are Bidis Being Marketed Online?
Our study found that bidis are marketed directly to consumers, who are encouraged to purchase products through a Facebook page. In 79% of cases, we found that bidi products were being directly marketed, often accompanied by product pictures. This contrasts with smoking and smokeless tobacco products; to circumvent laws prohibiting tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship (TAPS), the tobacco industry markets these products in more clandestine ways—including through the use of indirect marketing. Because the bidi industry continues to be less regulated than the cigarette industry, bidi companies may opt to market products directly, knowing that they receive less scrutiny and face fewer repercussions for not adhering to the same regulations that restrict the marketing of other tobacco products. In addition to direct marketing, 19% of the bidi marketing we observed was indirect and linked to popular events and holidays, likely as an attempt to normalize tobacco use during the holidays and connect it with family and community.

 

Figure 1a: Type of Online Marketing

Figure 1a: Type of Online Marketing

 

 

Figure 1b: Type of Online Marketing

Figure 1b: Type of Online Marketing

 

 

Figure 1c: Type of Online Marketing

Figure 1c: Type of Online Marketing

 



Where are bidis being marketed online and why is it a concern?

Bidis are being marketed exclusively through Facebook companies, including Facebook with linkages to Instagram and WhatsApp. Almost all the observed bidi marketing (98%) was found on Facebook pages that often functioned as storefronts. In total, we found 30 Facebook pages for bidi companies, though there are likely more. Despite Facebook’s policy against selling tobacco products on its platform, it is clear that many bidi companies have found ways around these restrictions.19 In addition to its well-established e-commerce function, Facebook offers integration with WhatsApp, allowing customers to inquire directly about products and even purchase them.20
WhatsApp numbers are featured prominently across many bidi companies' Facebook pages, and visitors are encouraged to reach out to make inquiries or purchase products. The lack of age verification regulation on Facebook reinforces concerns that minors are easily able to access bidi products online. The Facebook pages we observed also fail to list the possible harms associated with consuming bidi products. Over the last few years, social media use has grown among India’s rural community—where bidis are particularly popular15— to 299 million active internet users.21, 22

 

Source: https://www.facebook.com/ThalappaGaneshBeedis/

Source: https://www.facebook.com/ThalappaGaneshBeedis/

 
 
Where are other tobacco products being marketed online and why is it a concern?

While bidi marketing on social media occurs primarily on Facebook (98%), smoking and smokeless tobacco products are marketed across a wider range of social media platforms. Since the direct marketing of bidis is being used to facilitate purchases, companies are opting to use Facebook, which offers consumer-friendly functions that other platforms do not have, including a marketplace and connections to WhatsApp. On the other hand, marketing for smoking and smokeless tobacco products is almost entirely indirect, and functions to cultivate brand recall by normalizing the tobacco company’s products in the minds of consumers. In order to create brand awareness among new age groups and types of consumers, traditional tobacco companies rely on diverse social media platforms, which allow them to reach varied audiences that are growing exponentially. Our findings confirm that smokeless tobacco products were marketed most often on Instagram (42%), followed by Facebook (39%) and YouTube (12%), while smoking tobacco products were marketed on Facebook (53%), followed by Instagram (31%) and Twitter (10%).
 

 

Figure 3a: Social Media Platforms Used for Tobacco Marketing

Figure 3a: Social Media Platforms Used for Tobacco Marketing

 

 

Figure 3b: Social Media Platforms Used for Tobacco Marketing

Figure 3b: Social Media Platforms Used for Tobacco Marketing

 

 

Figure 3c: Social Media Platforms Used for Tobacco Marketing

Figure 3c: Social Media Platforms Used for Tobacco Marketing

 


 

What messages are used to market bidis online?

Bidi marketing is more upfront, whereas marketing for most tobacco products tends to be indirect. Both indirect and direct tobacco marketing has been found to influence tobacco consumption, but direct marketing demonstrates a more blatant disregard of TAPS restrictions. We found that 33% of bidi marketing displayed images of rolled bidis with a brand name and logo. Marketing that uses only pictures and little to no text can often be a strategy used to appeal to populations with lower literacy levels.23

Bidis were marketed in relation to relaxation and entertainment 24% of the time. In 20% of cases, bidis were marketed in connection with events, including celebrity birthdays and popular sports. Bidis were even marketed online during religious holidays, including Holi and Eid, to normalize tobacco use and engage new customers. Certain bidi companies, including Thalappa Ganesh Beedis, go
so far as to be named after and to feature Hindu religious figures on their packaging. And while some bidi packaging had a warning label covering approximately 85% of the package, many did not. This is consistent with previous evidence that bidi brands comply with health warning label regulations less often than other products.14

 

Marketing sample

Marketing sample

 

 

Figure 4 Marketing by Message Type

Figure 4 Marketing by Message Type

 


 

Where is online bidi marketing originating?

Bidi marketing originates across the entire country, reflecting the dispersed and highly fragmented industry. Our findings are consistent with previous studies that have found that bidi production is hyperlocal and highly segmented, making it hard to regulate. We found that in comparison to other tobacco products that are marketed by a few major companies across six states, bidi marketing originates from a higher volume of companies and reaches across at least 11 different states.15 This broad spread reflects the overall nature of the bidi industry, which operates in more than half of India’s 35 states.24

Recommendations:

  • Monitor and report regularly to support restrictions on tobacco marketing. Bidi product marketing must be carefully surveilled both online and offline.
  • Build better accountability mechanisms that stop the promotion and sale of tobacco products online.
  • Hold social media companies responsible to close down tobacco marketing and sales on their platforms, in line with their own policies.
  • Educate and alert consumers to recognize harmful marketing tactics.

For more information, please visit the TERM website or TERM Facebook page
 

Figure 5: Online Marketing by State

Figure 5: Online Marketing by State



Appendix A
Methodology:
A digital media monitoring tool was used to gather the publicly available data presented in this report from various social media platforms, including but not limited to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and forums. The platform was machine coded to identify relevant posts. A generic search was conducted on social media using the keywords: “beedi” OR “#beedi” OR “bidi” OR “#bidi” OR “bidis” OR “#bidis” OR “biri” OR “#biri” OR “????” OR “#????.” A manual search and a systematic human-check also supplemented the automatic search. Marketing instances were selected by combining the generic bidi keywords with the following bidi brand names (502 Bidi, Ganesh 501 Bidi, GovindBidi, Hawra Bidi, Kismat Bidi, Pataka Bidi, Prakash Bidi, Sher Bidi, Shikari Bidi, S K Beedi, Maveli Beedi, Garuda Beedi, Raja Bidi, Radheshri Beedi, Dinesh Bidi, Mursidabad Biri).

Posts shared by the brand’s page containing only images, or both images and text, were included in our final counts. Social media posts depicting instances of bidi marketing were captured and analyzed manually, then classified into appropriate codes, including type of marketing, message framing and location. Social media pages that included the name of the bidi brand and were listed as a “retail shop” were selected and classified as pages linked to bidi companies. Posts were identified in English and Hindi for a data collection period from Dec. 16, 2020 to Aug. 15, 2021.
Fully detailed methodology, including coding, is available upon request.

Appendix B
Figure 6: Total Marketing by Bidi Company
 

Figure 6: Total Marketing by Bidi Company

Figure 6: Total Marketing by Bidi Company


Appendix C
Message Framing for Marketing
The majority of bidi marketing used direct images of the product, while marketing of other tobacco products used messages related to lifestyle and community celebration.
Marketing instances were recorded between Dec. 16, 2020, and Aug. 15, 2021.

Table 1: Type of Message Framing
Images were manually coded according to the following categories:
 

Type of Message Framing

Type of Message Framing


Appendix D
Type of Marketing
Most of the bidi marketing was direct and there were fewer instances of indirect marketing to events and holidays. There were far fewer instances of indirect marketing.
Marketing instances were recorded between Dec. 16, 2020 and Aug. 15, 2021.

Table 2: Type of Marketing
Marketing Tactics Summary
 

Table 2: Type of Marketing

Table 2: Type of Marketing



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Acknowledgments
Authors
Sharan Kuganesan,1 Namrata Kumar,1 Vaishakhi Mallik,1* Hana Raskin,1 Pahuni Jain,1 Nandita Murukutla1
1Vital Strategies, New York, NY 10005, USA
*Correspondence: Vaishakhi Mallik, Vital Strategies, Annexe Building Ground Floor B-4 Greater Kailash Enclave Part II New Delhi South Delhi DL 110048 IN; VMallik@vitalstrategies.org

Acknowledgments
The authors gratefully acknowledge Amit Yadav and Pranay Lal from the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease as well as Pallavi Puri and Rebecca Perl from Vital Strategies for their review and technical support.

Editors
Genine Babakian and Sherrill Cohen

Designers
Johnny Hsu, David Shin, Adriana Fratini

Suggested citation
Vital Strategies. Selling Death on Social Media: How Bidis Are Reaching Consumers Online. Sharan Kuganesan, Namrata Kumar, Vaishakhi Mallik, Hana Raskin, Pahuni Jain, Nandita Murukutla. New York, NY, 2021. Available from: https://www.vitalstrategies.org/resources/selling-death- on-social-media

Creative Commons license
This work is made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution- Non Commercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/  or send a letter to Creative Commons, P.O. Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA. The content in this document may be freely used in accordance with this license provided the material is accompanied by the following attribution: “Selling Death on Social Media: How Bidis Are Reaching Consumers Online.” New York, NY; 2021. Copyright ©Vital Strategies.

Published date
November 2021
 
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