Tobacco fair tests Thai anti-smoking efforts, 29/08/09

   BANGKOK – Thailand’s reputation as a Southeast Asian country with strong anti-smoking laws faces a direct challenge from the tobacco multinational companies that are due to gather in the Thai capital in November for a major industry congress and exhibition.


The organizers of the cigarette promotion gathering, TABINFO Asia 2009, are not leaving anything to the imagination as to why Bangkok has been chosen as the venue for the Asia-Pacific region’s “own dedicated tobacco show”.

“The Asia-Pacific region has not escaped the global credit meltdown. But its cigarette market remains more buoyant than elsewhere,” declares the Tobacco Reporter trade publication in its
website. “The region remains one of the world’s most promising cigarette markets.”

Participants are promised an event, which runs from November 11-13, that will feature “The Big Issues. The Big Players”, trumpets the conference website. It will offer “a very diverse representation of industry players up and down the supply chain. The expanded list of participants makes this a must-attend event for networking, showcasing, discovering, buying, and selling”.

The market opportunities of four countries in the region – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand – are already being highlighted by the trade publication to swell the number of cigarette enthusiasts for the Bangkok trade show. “With 2007 sales of 231 billion cigarettes, Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest market,” notes Tobacco Reporter. “It is also one of the most promising markets in terms of value.”

The choice of a developing country as a venue for this flagship event for tobacco multinationals comes at a time when the tobacco market in the developed world is shrinking due to a battery of tobacco control policies and the world’s dominant cigarette producers are looking to the developing world to boost their fortunes.

This trend is reflected in the places where the tobacco industry has gathered every two years prior to Bangkok. The 2007 tobacco trade fair was held in Sao Paulo, Brazil; in 2005 it was the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. The last such fair hosted by a developed country was in Barcelona, Spain, in 2003.

“This shift is to identify market opportunities available to tobacco companies in developing countries,” says Mary Assunta, chairperson of the Framework Convention Alliance (FCA). “When the TABINFO was held in Malaysia, it described Asia as the world’s ‘fastest growing market’ and looked to Kuala Lumpur as the ‘gateway’ to Asia.”

The FCA is a network of some 200 anti-smoking organizations worldwide that monitor the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the world’s first public health treaty, which came into force in 2005. The treaty, championed by the World Health Organization (WHO), aims to reduce the trail of death and disease caused by tobacco products.

The choice of Bangkok as this year’s venue also brings into focus the global tobacco lobby’s attitude towards Thailand, Assunta reveals in an e-mail interview from Sydney. “Because the Thai government has done so well and achieved so much in tobacco control, the global tobacco industry is probably challenging the stringent measures, too,” she said. “It is probably trying to send a message to the international community that it is still strong and that it dares to go to the most stringent environment and flex its muscles.”

The role of The Thailand Tobacco Monopoly, a government body that enjoys nearly 75% of the cigarette market share locally, is also being called into question. It is a major backer of the November trade fair.

“The fact that the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly is supporting this activity shows that they are putting the Thai government in a compromising situation,” says Bungthon Ritthiphakdee, director of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance. “Thailand is a party to the WHO-Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.”

Consequently, the Thai government cannot, on the one hand, have policies to reduce tobacco consumption according to the FCTC obligations and, on the other hand, help to increase consumption through such fairs, Bungthon, a Thai national, told Inter Press Service. “This is an outright contradiction and this contravenes the FCTC’s Article 5.3.”

That article calls for the need to protect public policy from the tobacco industry’s influence. The FCTC policies that Thailand has signed on to include restrictions of all forms of tobacco advertising, trade, sponsorship and promotion. The FCTC has stringent restrictions to protect people from exposure to smoking, and calls for graphic pictorial warnings on cigarette packets and strong taxation policies.

This reality is reflected in the growing list of venues where smoking is banned. Air-conditioned bars and restaurants, open-air markets and public buildings such as government offices, train stations and hospitals are on that list where the country’s 10 million smokers, out of the nation’s 65.5 million population, cannot puff.

Thailand, like Brazil and Canada, stands out as a leader in the tobacco control movement in other areas, too: graphic pictures of damaged lungs cover the top half of every cigarette packet sold. To control sales, not only are all forms of tobacco advertising banned, but even cigarette packets cannot be openly displayed in shops that sell them.

Such measures have contributed to a drop in the number of smokers here when set against the country’s regional neighbors like Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Vietnam tops the list, with 73% of the male population smoking, followed by Cambodia, where 70% of men smoke, and then Indonesia, the region’s giant with 220 million people, where 70% of the men smoke.

Globally, there are 1.3 billion smokers, of whom nearly 600 million will die prematurely due to tobacco-related illnesses, states the WHO.

“We are struggling to control smoking in Thailand and the conference planned in November will be a challenge to us,” says Dr Prakit Vathesatogkit, secretary of the Action on Smoking and Health Foundation for Thailand, a non-government organization committed to tobacco control.

“We hear that the conference organizers want smoking to be allowed in the exhibition area, which is prohibited by Thai law,” she says.

(Inter Press Service)