Anti-smoking lobby insists plain packs could cut Asia’s smoking rate

Australia’s High Court this week supported the government’s plain packaging laws for tobacco products.

Similar laws are now being considered by a number of Asian countries, including China, India and Indonesia.

But do they have a chance, considering the influence of state-owned tobacco companies and that Asia is one of the few remaining growth markets for the tobacco industry?

The anti-smoking lobby certainly hopes so.

Correspondent: Helene Hofman

Speakers: Bungon Rithiphakdee, Director, South East Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (ASEATCA); Prof Amitabh Matteo, Director, Australia-India Institute, Melbourne University; James Rarick, Technical Officer, Tobacco Free Initiative, World Health Organisation’s Western Pacific regional office

HOFMAN: A few months ago when I was in East Timor I attended a youth street soccer tournament. It’s aim was to keep young people active and healthy.

The main sponsor was a major tobacco company and its name was tacked to every mention of the event to banners, posters, tickets everywhere.

East Timor is an example of a growing tobacco market, without restrictions and regulations and there are plenty more like it around Asia.

RITHIPHAKDEE: In ASEAN we have around 127 million smokers, and we know from the reports in each country that most of the smokers are poor people, and they are also with lower education.

HOFMAN: Bungon Rithiphakdee is the director of the South East Asia Tobacco Control Alliance.

RITHIPHAKDEE: Among the ten countries in ASEAN, four countries already have pictorial warnings, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, and another six countries they still only have text warnings. In many countries in the ASEAN now what the tobacco industry is doing is trying to market, produce a very special form of package, for example in the form of lipstick package, to target our women and our young girls.

HOFMAN: So how much of a hold on the region does the tobacco industry have?

RITHIPHAKDEE: In the region every government, they are trying their best to have a stronger policy but they are facing a lot of interference from the tobacco industry.

HOFMAN: Certainly, the major tobacco companies fought hard against the plain packaging legislation in Australia. It may have been cleared by the High Court this week, but another battle with the World Trade Organisation is about to begin and that could take up to three years to settle.

That’s a lot of effort considering that at 17 per cent, Australia has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world. There is a lot more to be lost in Asia. China, India and Indonesia are some of the biggest consumers of tobacco products in the world; one-third of their adult populations smoke. The Australia-India Institute at the University of Melbourne set up a taskforce on this issue and presented its findings to the New Delhi Parliament earlier this month, urging it to legislate for plain packaging as soon as possible.

Professor Amitabh Matteo, is the Institute’s Director.

MATTEO: There is growing public opinion, there is a growing lobby within the Indian parliament that is committed to campaign against the sale of tobacco. There is evidence that it does make a difference. It doesn’t mean that it will be the only thing that will solve or control the sale of tobacco but its one important measure and given that there are a few big tobacco companies you can actually enforce that fairly quickly and fairly easily. You’ll not be able to enforce it in the grey market, or local ways in which tobacco is used through beedies and chewing tobacco, but as far as targeting major, huge multinational companies, you will be able to make a big difference.

HOFMAN: James Rarick has been working with the Tobacco Free Initiative at the World Health Organisation’s regional office in the Philippines capital Manila.

He says they have had to work hard to stop the industry from interfering in government policy.

However, he is confident they are making progress, and takes the Australian High Court ruling as a sign that victory is in reach.

RARICK: What we’re seeing globally is a change in the industries tactics. They’re much more out in the open. They’ve become very aggressive in suing governments both domestically and on the international stage. We see there are complaints being brought to the World Trade Organisation. There’s complaints under country to country direct trade treaties, investment treaties. But many of these lawsuits sort of look like the death throes of a desperate industry and we do feel the industry is kind of on its heels now and that’s one of the reasons it has changed its tactics. It’s very desperate. It’s realised the impact these measures can have on it.

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