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 An article from the July issue of the magazine Civil Society

Who’s the hero? Why Burning Brain of course


Civil Society News

New Delhi


May 31 was a Red Letter day in the office of an unknown activist group in Chandigarh called the Burning Brain Society. On that day Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, Union minister for health, announced that no Indian film would be permitted to show actors smoking on screen. It was akin to ‘surrogate’ advertising for tobacco. Rules were amended banning ‘proxy’ advertisements. 

The film industry protested noisily, alleging restrictions on its creative freedom. But Burning Brain’s 5000 plus volunteers were whooping with joy. The ban was a big, big victory for them, coming as it did at the end of a three-year campaign to stop proxy advertising for tobacco. 

“I would say no school of acting across the world recommends the use of a cigarette to depict an emotion. In fact, Bharata Natyashastra, the Bible of Indian acting expressly forbids the use of any intoxicant,” says 33-year old management consultant, Hemant Goswami, founder and head of Burning Brain.  

Most members of Burning Brain are between 18 and 22 years of age. The name Burning Brain, explains Hemant, is inspired by the Chinese philosopher Confucius who said: “The brain is not a vessel to be filled. It is something to be ignited.”  

A small, slim man, Hemant looks more like a serious middle-class executive than a  jhola- swinging activist.  As a student in Class 12 he did a project on tobacco and came to know about its harmful effects. His father died of heart disease. A heavy smoker he’d given it up 10 years earlier. While studying at SD College in Ambala, Hemant tried to put together a group called the Society for the Prevention of Crime and Corruption. “But nobody seriously wanted to volunteer,” he says.  

Hemant realised that the key was in motivating the young. So, when he took up the campaign against tobacco, he framed his own strategies for reaching out. He conducted workshops, held painting competitions and kept up a flood of emails. He also used successful professionals to mentor the young. “Motivate youngsters. Pat them on the back and say well done.  Prevent them from getting into aberrations. Smoking is one of them. Find more people who are professionals and successful in their own fields so that they can mentor young people,” says Hemant.  

India is a signatory to the the International Framework Convention of Tobacco Control (FCTC), which bans surrogate advertisements of tobacco. We have a national law called the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, (COTPA) which forbids cigarette companies from using their trademark or logo to promote tobacco. 

But advertising continues in round about ways. In the film Swades, for instance, Shahrukh Khan smokes Marlboro cigarettes and the pack and brand name are clearly visible. The budgets of films like Swades are inextricably tied to revenues from surrogate advertising, which could be between Rs 2 to Rs 10 crore, says Hemant.

 Swades is a film about social issues. Well-displayed packets of Marlboro in the hand of a hugely popular actor like Shahrukh Khan are hardly integral to the film’s creative message. Besides they have an enormous impact on the young, who idolise film stars.  

Smoking is a lifestyle statement. When icons like Amitabh Bachhan promote polio campaigns and then smoke on screen, young people equate the two. Eighty five percent of new consumers of tobacco are in the age group of 11 to 25 years of age.

Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan have now publicly supported the ban. 

Apart from showing smoking on screen, companies sidestepped the law by using their brand name to promote events and by clubbing their brand name with another name and product. For instance: ‘Wills Lifestyle’, ‘Gold Flake Expressions’ greeting cards or ‘Kuber Namkeen’.

When companies promote cigarette brands through such surrogate advertising they get away from putting up the statutory warning ‘Cigarette smoking is injurious to health.

“It amounted to ‘sublimely sly’ publicity,” pointed out Burning Brain.

“We have seen movies with subtitles all our lives. Where is the problem with a scroll?  It will deliver a subliminal message,” says Hemant. It’s more important to prevent youngsters from smoking than worry about aesthetics, is his reasoning. 

In Chandigarh, every year, Godfrey Philips India, manufacturers of the Red and White brand of cigarettes would give away ‘Red and White Bravery Awards’ as part of their ‘social initiative’ programme. Their guest list read like the Who’s Who of officialdom. The Governor of Punjab would invariably be the chief guest.  The function would be held in a government owned hotel.

In March 2004, Burning Brain volunteers took to street level activism. They positioned themselves with placards at a plush hotel where the award ceremony was taking place and stopped Justice O. P. Verma, the Governor of Punjab who was the chief guest of the function, from going in.

Hemant pointedly told him, “You should not attend this function. You are indirectly promoting a cigarette brand and thus smoking. Such bravery shows by a cigarette company can influence young minds.” Verma admitted he had a point but gave away the awards, anyway.

Burning Brain was furious. The dignitaries didn’t care a twit. Officials attended the next year’s function as well.  The Governor of Punjab, General S. F. Rodrigues, was the chief guest in the 13th Red and White Bravery awards. Burning Brain described his act as ‘unpardonable’. The Advocate General Harbhagwan Singh, the Director General of Police, A. A. Siddique, the Principal Secretary, Dharam Vir were all there.

 “Awards and ceremonies and the presence of high dignitaries like the Governor give official recognition and public acceptance besides adding glamour to the name of the cigarette brand. This helps the cigarette company hook more youngsters to their brand of tobacco,” say Burning Brain. A logo of “Red and White” was visible at the venue of the function.

COTPA’s Section 5 (3) states clearly:

Sec. 5-(3) No person, shall, under a contract or otherwise promote or agree to promote the use or consumption of—(a) Cigarettes or any other tobacco product; or; (b) Any trade mark or brand name of cigarettes or any other tobacco product in exchange for a sponsorship, gift, prize or scholarship given or agreed to be given by another person.

But it seemed the government was hell bent on stamping on its own law. Doordarshan, the government’s channel, led the way in broadcasting the ‘bravery’ awards. Private TV channels followed. Godfrey Philips issued press releases and paid advertisements, which were carried in n ewspapers.

Burning Brain kept informing the government. Angry letters were shot off to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the President Abdul Kalam Azad and to the Governor of Punjab and Haryana. By now Burning Brain had a big base of friends on the Internet. When they carried out an Internet spot poll asking whether General Rodrigues did the right thing by attending the award function, 80 percent said ‘No’.

In February, this year, Hemant filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, pointing out how violations of COTPA were taking place. He is his own lawyer. His petition asks the court to stop Godfrey Philips India Ltd from promoting their cigarette brand by holding ‘Red and White Bravery” awards. Some of his other requests are that action be taken against all the people, organisations, media and the hotel who took part in the function. He has petitioned that a fine be slapped on Godfrey Philips for violating the law and money paid to the media for advertisements be recovered.   The court has taken note and issued notices to the Government of India, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and to the company Godfrey Phillips India Ltd.

Burning Brain started ‘spoof awards’ named "Red and Black Shame Awards" which were bestowed on officials who had failed to enforce COTPA and were hand in gloves with the company.

In June 2004 they campaigned against ITC when the company launched greeting cards under the brand name ‘Gold Flake Expressions’ with the same logo, design and colour as their cigarette brand “Gold Flake”.

They distributed fake ‘Impressions’ cards with a logo which read "Fake Gold Tobacco Warning Cards." Over 22,000 such New Year e-cards were eagerly downloaded from

They sent letters and memorandums to the Prime Minister, the President, Health Ministry and hundreds of Members of Parliament. Notices were issued to ITC Ltd and its major stockholding companies. Finally, the union ministry of health told ITC to withdraw its greeting cards, which according to Burning Brain, cost ITC Rs 70 crores.  

It was actor Vivek Oberoi who alerted Burning Brain to the danger of using movie stars to promote tobacco.

In 2004, Oberoi, much admired by the young, got the "World No Tobacco Day Award". He was given the award by WHO in recognition of his stand against tobacco.

Then, to Burning Brain’s shock and horror, on March 21, Oberoi accepted  the Red and White bravery  award! It was given to him for helping victims of the tsunami crisis. This was sheer hypocrisy. Burning Brain wrote him a letter telling him to return the award and apologise. Through the Internet, Oberoi was bombarded with e-mails.  Burning Brain alerted the Cancer Society, which had nominated the actor for the 2004 World No Tobacco Day award.  A week later, on 28 March, Oberoi returned the award to Godfrey Philips.

“Realising one’s mistake and admitting it publicly requires real courage,” remarked Hemant.

Meanwhile ITC managed to get a letter from the ministry of Information and Broadcasting saying that ‘Wills Lifestyle’ was not a form of surrogate advertising of tobacco. Burning Brain once again dispatched letters to the ministry of health, ministry of information and broadcasting, the Censor Board and the Controller General of Trademarks, Patents, Designs and Trademarks telling them not to allow companies to bypass the law by booking products with similar sounding names  under a separate category and then advertising it across different mediums. Those companies who had got this done should be deregistered.

In a letter to the Censor Board, Burning Brain also pointed out that Shahrukh Khan in Swades and Sunjay Dutt in Musafir were smoking the brand Marlboro and showing the packet several times.

 “We asked that any movie with a tobacco product should be certified “A” and not be shown on any satellite channel,” says Hemant.  

Sharmila Tagore, head of the Censor Board, acted even before the health ministry. She gave a commitment that all scenes glorifying smoking and/or showed any tobacco brand would be deleted. This was a big achievement for Burning Brain. 

Then came the ‘mother of all victories’—the letter from the health ministry saying that smoking in films would be banned and rules amended so that companies would not be able to indirectly advertise tobacco products. Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan are now publicly supporting the ban. 

Burning Brain has also asked that tobacco be sold only through licensed vendors, like liquor. This would bring revenue to the government and stop the proliferation of shops selling tobacco to minors.  

“This is the first step. It may take 10 years, but the law has been changed and the process has begun,” says Hemant, philosophically. 


For details on the new tobacco rules log on to

Or e-mail: info@burning

Burning Brain Society
Glass Office 3, Business Arcade, Shivalikview, Sector 17-E, Chandigarh 160 017 INDIA
Telephone: +91-172-5165555, 5185600

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