Cigarette puffers feel the heat in Southeast Asia
By dpa correspondents Feb 12, 2006, 16:18 GMT
Bangkok - Once upon a time cigarette smokers could enjoy themselves throughout Southeast Asia, toking up in bars, restaurants and hotel lobbies without fear of fines or scoldings.
Those carefree days for tobacco puffers in this traditionally smoker-friendly region are arguably going up in smoke.
Malaysia and Thailand, where smoking bans already exist in all air-condititioned restaurants, government offices, airports and other public venues like shopping malls, are now seriously considering making bars and other entertainment venues no-smoking zones.
'Actually the government wanted to sign the law last December,' said Prakit Vathesatogkit, head of Thailand's Anti-Smoking Foundation. 'It's just that the officials had not prepared the documents to include bars and nightclubs in the bill banning smoking in hotel lobbies, but the minister was ready to sign them.'
Thailand, which along with Singapore is at the forefront of the region's anti-smoking campaign, has enacted a host of restrictions on the tobacco industry including bans on cigarette advertisements, bans on smoking in most public places and requirements that all cigarette packs include graphic photos depicting the ill effects of tobacco on health. Last year the government banned cigarette displays at points of sale, making Thailand was the third country worldwide to do so.
The result? Thailand's puffer population has stagnated at about 10 million over the past decade, falling as a percentage of the population.
'We estimate that's 4 million less smokers than it would have been without two decades of anti-smoking campaigns,' said Prakit.
In Singapore, smoking in buses and cinemas was banned way back in 1970, and is now prohibited in schools, courts, buses, taxis and all air-conditioned public places as well as pools, open air stadiums, bus shelters and toilets.
'Any person caught smoking in these places is liable to be prosecuted in court for a fine of up to 1,000 Singapore dollars (618 dollars),' said a spokeswoman for the Singapore's Health Promotion Board.
Singapore smokers made up only 12.6 per cent of the population in 2004, one of the lowest rates in the world.
In Malaysia, the Health Ministry recently announced that discotheques, bars and outdoor recreation parks would soon be gazetted as non-smoking areas.
The ministry also plans to hike tobacco taxes by another 13 per cent this year. In 2004 the government launched a 27-million-dollar, five-year anti-smoking drive dubbed 'Tak Nak,' or 'Don't Want It,' but it coming up against tough resistance from Malaysian puffers, who account for 5 million of the country's 23 million people.
'The efforts against smoking is not achieving much,' admitted Mohamed Idris of the Consumers Association in Penang. 'The smoking habit is being successfully promoted and new smokers are still being recruited every day.'
Despite Malaysia's ban on tobacco advertising on TV and radio, cigarette companies are allowed to sponsor sporting events, pop concerts, parties and 'adventure activities,' earning Malaysia some notoriety as the world's capital for indirect advertising.
Indonesia, where 62 per cent of adult men are smokers - ranking the archipelago of 220 million people fifth among the world's leading tobacco consumers - the government's anti-smoking efforts have run into serious opposition.
A ban on smoking in all public places in Jakarta, the capital, was announced last year but only went into force this month, giving puffers a year-long grace period to adjust to the city ordinance that sets a 5,000-dollar fine and six-month jail penalty for violations.
After attempting to enforce the law last week Jakarta governor Sutiyoso decided to extend the learning period by another two months.
Despite Jakarta's efforts, Indonesia essentially remains a smokers' and cigarette producers' paradise.
In 2004, over 210 billion cigarettes were sold in Indonesia, where 90 per cent of all smokers opt for kreteks, the country's distinctive cigarette that mixes tobacco with a variety of other ingredients including cloves.
But even 'white' cigarettes find Indonesia profitable.
'BAT (British American Tobacco) sells about 5.3 billion sticks in Indonesia, about 2.4 per cent of the total market,' said Benny Sugiharto, manager of BAT's factory in Cirebon, Indonesia.
The government benefits from the sales big time. Officials say the tobacco industry accounts for some 95 per cent of the government excise revenue of over 3.2 billion dollars. Indonesia's powerful tobacco and kretek producers, some of the most profitable firms in the country, are known to have tremendous political clout.
In the Philippines tobacco lobbyists are also a problem. <!--page-->
'There are several lobbying efforts from tobacco companies and business establishments, who prefer not to have anti-smoking ordinances because these affect their business,' said a Manila-based World Health Organization (WHO) official who preferred to remain anonymous.
Unlike Indonesia and the Philippines, where the private sector and multinationals such as BAT and Philip Morris control the industry, Thailand's tobacco sector was dominated by the government's Thailand Tobacco Monopoly (TTM) up until 1991, when the U.S.A. forced the country to open its doors to the Marlboro Man and other foreign brands.
The government monopoly has been one of the key components in Thailand's relative success story in pushing through anti-smoking legislation and curbing cigarette consumption.
'I think in the Thai situation the Thai politicians were less influenced by the tobacco industry because the TTM is a government monopoly,' said Prakit.
'Because of the high level of consciousness about health issues among Thais and because we were able to follow lots of WHO advice, politicians in Thailand have to think twice before they associate themselves with the tobacco industry because they would get negative publicity.'© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur