Big Tobacco Meddling With Myanmar’s Government – Report

2 November 2016:

Tobacco companies have been meddling in government affairs and interfering with policies aimed at reducing smoking in Myanmar, a new report has said.

The report, by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, finds “high levels” of tobacco industry interference in Myanmar, which has been included in the annual update of ASEAN countries for the first time. 

The report throws light on Big Tobacco’s sophisticated tactics in Myanmar, which campaigners say have contributed to a drastic increase in the smoking rate in recent years.

Myanmar scored badly in key measures of the group’s Tobacco Industry Interference Index, ranking third worst out of nine ASEAN countries for conflicts of interest. SEATCA’s report said that retired senior officials, as well as current government officials or their relatives, hold positions in the tobacco industry.

The anti-tobacco group also marked Myanmar down because it has no policy prohibiting tobacco industry contributions to political parties.

Daw May Myat Cho, SEATCA’s coordinator for Myanmar, told Myanmar Business Today a decision early this month to postpone the enforcement of laws requiring graphic health warnings, which happened after research on the report was finished, was a clear example of tobacco industry interference. 

Tobacco companies were granted a six-month extension after they told the government they needed more time to display the warnings on all their products because they already had too many packs on the market without the pictures.

“They are not being genuine,” said Daw May Myat Cho, “but trying to delay as much as they can … It is one of their tactics that they have been using for many years.”

The report also criticised the Myanmar Investment Commission for accepting a donation from Japan Tobacco International on behalf of flood victims.

JTI, which makes the Winston and Mevius brands in Myanmar and Camel and Silk Cut in other countries, visited U Aung Naing Oo, secretary of the MIC to make a donation of K5,400,000 in September last year.

The report referred to actions like this as “so-called Corporate Social Responsibility”.

Of the nine countries studied, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, Myanmar ranked in the middle of the index overall. Indonesia, which unlike Myanmar has not joined the UN’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, was the worst country for interference.  

“Governments need to recognise that the tobacco industry cannot be treated like any other regular business,” said the report. “It is vital for the whole of government to acknowledge that the tobacco industry needs to be stripped of its privileges and strictly monitored and regulated. It cannot be business as usual.”

Myanmar’s tobacco control law bans all forms of promotion and advertising, but is regularly flouted by all major brands. British American Tobacco, which owns the Lucky Strike brand, has offered deals on individual cigarettes, even though it is illegal to sell in packs of fewer than 20.

JTI has a promotional campaign running using the slogan “Stay True,” which adorns lighters and parasols, while its branding can be seen on T-shirts worn by children working in teashops.

May Myat Cho says the smoking rate among males has risen from 46.8% to 60% since 2013, the year BAT and JTI entered the country.