Myanmar: Anti-tobacco law to be upgraded with harsher punishments, fines

6 September 2016

One decade after a law to control tobacco use went into effect, the government is finally pledging to give teeth to the legislation. Violators could face increased fines and even prison time, health officials warn.

Dr Thuzar Chit Tin, director of the Ministry of Health and Sport, said the 2006 Control of Smoking and Consumption of Tobacco Products Law is in the process of being updated, with fines raised to reflect the current economy and act as a bigger disincentive.

Under the existing law, advertising tobacco products, distributing cigars, cigarettes or other tobacco products free of charge, sponsoring sports and other exhibitions, or publicising tobacco by any means is subject to a fine ranging from K20,000 to K50,000 for the first offence, rising to a maximum of K200,000 or two years in prison for subsequent offences. Penalties also apply to anyone who tries to obstruct or assault officials trying to prevent smoking in a no-smoking zone.

“Amendments will be made to the law to upgrade the punishments” and bring them into conformity with current conditions, said Dr Thuzar Chit Tin on September 1.

Myanmar launched a tobacco-free program in 1980, after introducing its first anti-smoking legislation in 1959 with an act that banned smoking in theatres.

Though the consumption of cigarettes and tobacco products decreased in 2007 after the control of smoking law came into effect, usage subsequently increased, apparently in part because of lax enforcement, particularly with regard to the ban on selling cigarettes within 100 feet (30.5 metres) of a school, or selling single cigarettes. Tobacco companies were among the first to quickly enter the country after the government began relaxing import restrictions.

According to a 2014 survey, the rate of tobacco use in Myanmar is 26.1 percent of the population, including 43.8pc of men and 8.4pc of women. About 80pc of smokers use tobacco every day. About 7pc of students smoke, and 17pc use cigars or other forms of tobacco.

The rate of betel use is higher, with 43pc of the population consuming betel, including 62pc of men and 24.1pc of women.

One of the problems in countering consumption, Dr Thuzar Chit Tin said, is that tobacco, betel and pickled tea leaves are considered traditional leisure activities, and their use seems to be rising. “We need to educate the public about the dangers of smoking,” she said.

However, she said, the tobacco industry is very powerful and influential compared to the resources available to the government. “The tobacco industry influences policymakers and the media. They have the financial resources to ensure that what the industry says gets better media coverage than the information we provide.”

She added that the updated law could also apply some of the tax derived from tobacco products to the health sector and to public education drives intended to reduce smoking.

In 2010 the government doubled the tax on cigarettes to 100 percent, while taxes on other tobacco products, including cheroots, were raised to 50pc in 2012. Additionally, shops are required to charge a 5pc sales tax. But according to the Internal Revenue Department, most cigarette producers do not pay the tax because of a lack of enforcement.

But measures to scale up the warning labels on tobacco products have gained traction. In 2014, the Myanmar Cigarette and Tobacco Products Consumption Controlling Central Committee added picture and text health on packaging and branding tobacco products. In June, the Ministry of Health announced thatwarning labels must appear on all brands of tobacco products in Myanmar from September.

The ministry released a notification in February calling for the implementation of the 2006 law. But the six-month period that was to have elapsed before enforcement began has been extended a further six months following appeals from the industry. The law is now expected to come fully into force in March 2017.