12 December 2016:
A senior public health official has said representatives from the company that produces Camel cigarettes are “liars” during a disagreement over Myanmar’s ban on tobacco advertising.
Japan Tobacco International, which makes Mevius and Winston cigarettes in Myanmar, duped the Department of Health into letting them take out an advertisement in a newspaper despite the fact tobacco promotion is banned in Myanmar, the official said.
The company, which rejects the official’s claim, bought half a page of space in the Myanmar Times and used it to publish prominent pictures of its brands in October.
There is a blanket ban on tobacco advertising in Myanmar but JTI asked the Department of Public Health for permission to run a “public notice” to inform its customers about new graphic pictorial health warnings that are now legally required on cigarette packets.
Dr Thuzar Chittin, who is responsible for tobacco control at the Department of Public Health, told Myanmar Business Today the announcement went far beyond being a simple notice, as she had expected, and was opportunistic advertising.
Dr Thuzar Chittin said although her department did give permission for the company to publish a notice about pictorial health warnings, she was surprised when the notice was published to see large pictures of JTI’s brands and wording that she said sounded like promotional material.
“Even though the packaging has changed, the quality of our products will remain unchanged,” the JTI announcement said.
“They have taken this opportunity to do some advertising,” she said, adding that the tobacco control outfit she runs was tricked because it was “inexperienced” at dealing with foreign multinationals.
“They are liars,” she said.
Dr May Myat Cho, a public health expert who works on Myanmar at the Southeast Asian Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) said it was common for tobacco companies to “try and circumvent the law.”
“Tobacco industry interference is a major problem in our region and there are no interventions (to stop this) so far in Myanmar,” she said.
A Japan Tobacco spokesperson said the announcement as it appeared in the newspaper “was formally approved by the Deputy Director General of the Public Health Department.”
The announcement featured prominent colour pictures of JTI’s cigarette packets without the health warnings. Below those, it showed smaller images of packs with the new warnings.
The Myanmar Times’ Burmese language edition also ran a version of the notice. The newspaper’s Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief, Bill Tegjeu, did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by email.
Dr Thuzar Chittin said that her seniors had decided not to take action against the company this time, though she did not say why.
A recent report by SEATCA found “high levels” of tobacco industry interference with Myanmar’s government.
“I think we really need a notification or guidelines for government officials, at least in the Ministry of Health, on dealing with tobacco industry interference,” said Dr May Myat Cho.