Hats off to Uruguay, countries in ASEAN must not be daunted by Big Tobacco
Bangkok, Thailand – 12 July 2016: The Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) congratulates Uruguay in its historic win against legal challenges brought about by tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI).
In February 2010, PMI filed a case against Uruguay with the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), challenging its comprehensive anti-tobacco legislation.
To protect public health, the Uruguayan government passed legislation requiring tobacco companies to apply 80% pictorial health warning on cigarette packs and limit the sales of cigarettes to only one variant per brand to prevent misleading descriptors such as “light” and “mild”. These measures are in line with the global health treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). In addition, Uruguay introduced 100% smoke-free public and workplaces, public transportation and within the outdoor premises of health and educational institutions.
“This win for Uruguay is an important precedent and inspiration especially for other low- and middle-income countries all over the world. Countries in Southeast Asia that are planning to push for bigger pictorial health warnings (PHW) and standardized tobacco packaging like Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore should not be intimidated by Big Tobacco. They should be emboldened by Uruguay’s victory and proceed with their plans,” said Ms. Bungon Ritthiphakdee, Executive Director of SEATCA.
SEATCA’s ‘Tobacco Packaging and Labelling Index’ released in May 2016 found that while all ten ASEAN countries require pictorial warnings on tobacco packs, only four countries (Brunei, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Thailand) require warnings larger than 75%. The FCTC recommends that health warnings be as large as possible and include pictures to effectively communicate health harms of tobacco use.
Uruguay was brave to allow only single brand variants for display and sale – i.e. only one kind of Marlboro, no menthol, lights/gold, black, etc. – to prevent deception and reduce attraction of consumers. For example, to target young girls, tobacco companies introduce “mild” and “slim” cigarette brands. Governments can take a leaf from Uruguay’s experience and ban this tactic to protect minors from becoming lifelong smokers.
Tobacco companies also oppose comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship (TAPS), which are proven to reduce tobacco use. In Indonesia, sports and music events are still sponsored by tobacco companies. In the Philippines, tobacco companies have taken advertising at points-of-sale to ridiculous extremes. In Malaysia tobacco companies use fancy display counters to launch new brands. Only Thailand, Singapore, and Brunei have banned pack displays at points-of-sale.
“A case of David vs. Goliath, Uruguay proved that all governments, big or small, can comply with the WHO FCTC and safeguard the health and wellbeing of their citizens in the face of tobacco industry bullying. We extend our heartiest congratulations to the President and government of Uruguay for standing up to a powerful tobacco giant and winning,” said Ms. Ritthiphakdee.
Suing a government is a known intimidation tactic because most governments in low and middle-income countries simply do not have the funds for protracted and expensive legal challenges by rich tobacco companies.
According to the WHO, tobacco causes six million preventable deaths worldwide each year. In the ASEAN region about 470,000 deaths are due to tobacco use.
Wendell C Balderas, Media and Communications Officer – SEATCA
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