Health Secretary John Reid has pledged to cut the number of UK smokers by two million over the next five years and future legislation is likely to drastically curtail the number of enclosed public areas, such as workplaces, where smoking will be permissible.
Smoking is one of today's most high-profile public health issues. All of which is excellent news for those pharmaceuticals marketing products designed to help smokers kick their habit.
The Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) category spans products ranging from patches and lozenges to gums. It is dominated by three brands: Pfizer's Nicorette, Novartis Consumer Health's Nicotinell and GlaxoSmithKline's NiQuitin CQ. The 'three Nics', as they are sometimes referred to, have a tough fight on their hands to achieve differentiation and wrest market share from each other.
Joining the health debate
All the big brands have external consumer PR support - Toniq works for Nicotinell, Red Door Communications represents NiQuitin CQ and Fuel PR handles Nicorette. Cohn & Wolfe has also worked with NiQuitin CQ on its sponsorship of the BMW Williams Formula One team - it is the first NRT brand to become involved in F1 - and continues to work on GSK's smoking-cessation portfolio and prescription drug Zyban from an ethical-healthcare and NHS-policy perspective.
Clearly there is no shortage of opportunity for these NRT brands to get involved in the health debate relating to smoking, and they can call upon PR firepower to do so. However, from a brand-management perspective, while taking part in the argument would deliver short-term publicity, some feel it could send out the wrong sort of signals to smokers struggling to wean themselves off their addiction.
'Being judgemental and wagging a finger at a smoker is unlikely to be successful in making them quit, because quitting is hard,' says Toniq founding consultant Alison Miles.
'What the authorities are doing is fine but for brands it's all about saying "we support you". Quitters certainly don't want yet more messages that smoking is bad for them from NRT brands - they know that already or they wouldn't be attempting to quit. What they need to know is that it is possible to succeed,' she adds.
With this in mind, the focus of Nicotinell's PR is to inspire and support those who have decided to quit. As very few people manage to give up smoking at their first attempt, anyone seriously committed to trying needs to feel supported and encouraged to keep going, especially when the cravings and temptations are at their worst, says Miles.
That is why part of Nicotinell's PR strategy is its sponsorship of the QUIT Awards (see box, p28). 'The white paper on public health has generated significant column inches focusing on the proposed ban on smoking in public places, which presents both an opportunity and a challenge for PR professionals,' says C&W healthcare account manager Nicole Bell. 'On the one hand, it creates increased media interest in smoking cessation, but it also turns smokers off from the health message.'
As many smokers are resistant to the preaching, thou-shalt-not-smoke approach, C&W has had to be much more creative in how it uses the media to target smokers to keep them engaged.
'We've been successful in the past by taking more of a health and beauty approach rather than a strict health message to communicate directly with women who smoke. I think it will become increasingly important for PROs to really understand what motivates people to consider quitting. This will enable their brand to resonate with an audience that feels bombarded by stark health warnings,' says Bell.
Targeting the quitters
Nicotinell has been keen to pursue the health and beauty route. It has work-ed with regional newspapers and women's magazines such as Family Circle, Chat and Best on advertorials and reader offers centred on a 'Stimulate The Senses' product giveaway. The kit contains items such as chocolates, relaxing music, aromatherapy items, hand cream and eye drops, with the subtle message that smoking can dull your tastebuds and spoil the appearance of your hands and eyes.
Regulations prohibit the sampling of NRT products, so the packs do not contain any Nicotinell. However, Novartis has pioneered placebo sampling, substituting nicotine for a peppery ingredient when handing out samples of its coated gum outside Tube and railway stations.
Of course, this time of year is an important period for the NRT brands, as many smokers try to quit after the unhealthy excesses of the festive season, often as a New Year's resolution.
But increasingly the savvier operators are looking to develop promotional activity around other major dates on the calendar as well. National No Smoking Day, to be held on 9 March this year, is the most obvious. Nicorette sent its 'Cravings Man' brand icon to a number of community events during last year's No Smoking Day.
'To avoid any confusion over who is organising the event we don't encourage too much branding,' says No Smoking Day chief executive Ben Youdan. 'But we do work with companies' PR agencies and we're keen that they communicate with doctors and pharmacists.'
Plenty of opportunity
Some lateral thinking has seen brands seize on other opportunities, such as the day of the Budget - which invariably sees the announcement of a cigarette tax hike - and even Valentine's Day. Last year, Nicotinell ran radio competitions to win romantic dinners for two - with the subtext that not smoking makes you more attractive. Nicorette has supported the Capital FM No Smoking Day event in the past.
There remain around 13 million smokers in the UK, and some estimates have it that 70 per cent of them would like to quit. Pressure group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) director Deborah Arnott believes the public health white paper is a big step forward for the nation's well-being that will help cut down on dangerous second-hand - as well as first-hand - smoke and encourage yet more people to quit.
Feelings run high in the ongoing public health debate. That suits the NRT brands down to the ground.
Prudently, however, the 'three Nics' are at pains not to be sucked into the argument, preferring instead to concentrate on assisting those consumers who have already decided to stub out their habit for good.
QUIT AWARDS 2004
Nicotinell was looking for maximum media exposure from its sponsorship of the QUIT Awards 2004.
A main objective for agency Toniq was to negotiate an exclusive with a national tabloid newspaper.
The awards spanned nine months from March to November, divided into distinct stages - campaign launch, the applications and selection process, and the awards seminar and ceremony. Objectives were set out for each area.
Having negotiated support from The Sun, the QUIT Awards were launched on Thursday 4 March, a week before No Smoking Day, with a specially combined QUIT, Nicotinell and Sun logo. The following week, regional newspapers and radio stations covered the launch and encouraged ex-smokers to enter.
Health-professional publications were then targeted for entries.
A selection panel comprising health professionals, a pharmacist, an ex-smoker and representatives from The Sun and QUIT met on 5 August.
Once a shortlist for the awards was compiled, case histories of the finalists were issued.
The QUIT Awards ceremony along with a specially organised 'In search of Euro-pean Excellence' health-professional seminar took place in London on 5 October. GMTV presenter John Stapleton and Sun health editor Jane Symons presented the awards. Afterwards, radio interviews with the winners were set up and releases issued.
Requests for entry forms were up 46 per cent on the previous year and completed applications increased by 48 per cent. There were more than 100 pieces of coverage reaching a potential audience of 18 million.