It wasn’t quite cricket at the Indian Premier League with Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli’s ugly spat taking top trending honours. But there is more, and it would be unfortunate if it slips through the cracks. In a country where 80 per cent of oral cancers are directly linked to the use of tobacco, former cricketers Sunil Gavaskar and Virendra Sehwag showed they had more in common than opening the batting as they padded up on our television screens during a match break to endorse pan masala, a toxic mix of ingredients including tobacco that come with a warning, they are injurious to health.
In India, there is a cricketer for every monsoon raindrop but only a few names make it to the hallowed halls of eternal fame. The two former players won respect across generations, a popularity and its benefits they have reaped outside the cricket field. This advertisement begs the question, how much will be too much?
Bollywood stars in the pan masala bandwagon
Gavaskar and Sehwag may or may not indulge in it themselves — and we know surrogate advertising when we see one — but as celebrity sportsmen and that too cricketers who remain the creme de la crème of Indian sport, their actions are disappointing. The messaging has the potential to encourage their fans, whether to simply experiment or flirt with addiction, a legitimate concern in a country that accounts for one-third of oral cancer cases in the world. Pan masala has areca nut or supari, which is a known carcinogen.
The cricketers though are not the first celebs to endorse this harmful product however, until now it has by and large been restricted to Bollywood stars, some of whom continue to shrug at the flak they receive. Seeing cricketers in such an advertisement has upended the image that sportsmen are among the most disciplined, eating and drinking with an eye on fitness.
Money, fame, and following; when high-profile celebrities who have all this in abundance promote unhealthy brands, they are complicit in not just endorsing its consumption but are also thumbing down at the very people who idolise them.
From Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Ranveer Singh to Ajay Devgn, several actors have been guilty of promoting pan masala brands despite health concerns. Even the big man of celluloid, Amitabh Bachchan, has been an ambassador defending it before a public backlash forced him to reassess his choices at the age of 79. His explanation of being unaware that the product came under surrogate advertising is baffling; if the viewer can see between the lines, then signing big contracts such as these cannot be done without some due diligence. At the most, the lost in translation clause can apply to Pierce Brosnan, the former James Bond star who said he had been deceived and not given full disclosure about the pan masala brand he endorsed. Not all are convinced even then.
In 1995, the advertisement of tobacco and liquor products was banned in India, but by 2009 an amendment allowed companies to air brand logos disguised in harmless products. Since then surrogate advertising has relied heavily on star power, and it is a reflection of the money involved that a single advertisement once had three of the biggest names in Bollywood together.
The Cristiano Ronaldo example
By 2027, the market value of pan masala is expected to rise to a whopping Rs 53,081.5 crore (Rs530 billion or Dh23.8 billion), a lobby that resists imposing any regulations. A national policy is urgently needed to ban not just its production but also marketing. Currently, it is no different than the sale of cigarettes; tobacco causes nearly 1.35 million deaths in the country every year.
Until a mechanism is in place that cracks down on such advertisements — and they are visible not just on our television screens but also on street hoardings and in newspapers — the responsibility lies on celebrities to do right by their followers. Tempting as it may be, their strength and responsibility lie in refusing such endorsements despite the dangling of good pay.
Money, fame, and following; when high-profile celebrities who have all this in abundance promote unhealthy brands, they are complicit in not just endorsing its consumption but are also thumbing down at the very people who idolise them. It may be just business for them but it leaves a bad taste.
As for Sehwag and Gavaskar, they only have to look at football legend Cristiano Ronaldo who once removed cola bottles from in front of him at a press conference urging people to drink water instead. His move tanked the company’s share price by millions, but he practised what he preached, mentioning earlier that he tells his children not to drink it either.
In recent days, there has been much rethink on idols, heroes and feet of clay. As the wrestlers’ protest on Delhi’s streets continues, cricketers — past and present — along with Bollywood stars have been conspicuous in their lack of support for top woman wrestlers protesting alleged sexual abuse.
Are we mistaken in our choices? Do we give them more love than they deserve while they do business with our hearts? Did we get our hero worship wrong?