An advert in Switzerland shows a barefoot young woman on a high parapet overlooking a city as the sun sets. “A Maybe never reached the top”, says the caption.

“Maybe never wrote a song”, runs the caption on another billboard in Germany, beside the picture of a laughing young woman performer, hair dishevelled, cigarette in hand. Other posters show young men riding stunt bikes and motorbikes.

Each advert in the “Don’t be a Maybe” campaign ends with the command “Be Marlboro”.

Anti tobacco campaigners on Wednesday published a report accusing Philip Morris International, the makers of Marboro cigarettes, of breaching its own ethical code in embarking on a high profile global advertising and marketing campaign intended to recruit new young smokers.

The campaign has been introduced across 50 countries, featuring billboards, adverts and promotional events including music concerts. The posters show young people apparently acting in radical, decisive and adventurous ways. “Maybe never fell in love Be Marlboro” runs the banner on a poster of two young people kissing in a dark street.

That advert ran in Germany in 2011. In October 2013, Germany banned the promotional images, ruling they were designed to encourage children as young as 14 to smoke. PMI has said it will appeal. Meanwhile the campaign has taken off in other countries, such as Indonesia, Brazil and the Philippines, where the laws on cigarette advertising are not as stringent as in some European nations, including Britain.

In a joint report, seven anti tobacco organisations said PMI is trying to recruit a new generation of youngsters, many of whom risk becoming hooked on tobacco for life. The report, “You’re the Target”, was issued by Corporate Accountability International, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, Alliance for the Control of Tobacco Use, Tobacco Control Alliance, Framework Convention Alliance, InterAmerican Heart Foundation, and Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance.

The campaign “exploits adolescents’ search for identity by suggesting that in the face of uncertainty they should be a Marlboro smoker”, says the report. “Although PMI claims that ‘Be Marlboro’ only targets legal age smokers, campaign advertisements from around the world clearly focus on youth oriented images and themes that appeal to teenagers and feature young, attractive models partying, falling in love, adventure travelling and generally being ‘cool'”.

Anti tobacco campaigners have filed complaints in Brazil, Colombia and Switzerland, as well as Germany, claiming the adverts breach local laws. It also says that PMI is violating its own ethical code, which states “We do not and will not market our products to minors, including the use of images and content with particular appeal to minors.”

The organisations call on PMI to end the campaign immediately and urge governments to implement tougher anti tobacco advertising laws. “Not only is Philip Morris International likely violating tobacco control laws in many of the countries it operates this campaign, it is doing so in conjunction with its global campaign of litigation and intimidation aimed at stopping, watering down and delaying life saving public health measures,” said John Stewart, Challenge Big Tobacco campaign director at Corporate Accountability International.

He added “This report shines a light on the often illegal and always unethical tactics PMI uses to continue to addict people to its deadly products.”

A spokesman for PMI said “Our Marlboro campaign, like all of our marketing and advertising, is aimed exclusively at adult smokers and is conducted in compliance with local regulations and internal marketing policies. Allegations to the contrary are unfounded and based on a subjective interpretation.”

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