14 November 2023, Bangkok – Asia is failing to address the challenge of pervasive tobacco industry interference that is derailing and undermining health policies. This includes allowing the industry to participate wholesale in developing policy, accepting tobacco-related charity, giving benefits to the industry, and lacking transparency in interactions with the industry. While governments have the tools to protect health measures, they are sluggish in utilizing them. This is the main finding of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance’s 4th Asian Tobacco Industry Interference Index.
This Index measures how governments are protecting their health policies from tobacco industry interference in line with the requirements of Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in the following 19 Asian countries: Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Article 5.3 and its implementing guidelines underscore the importance of governments protecting tobacco control policies from the commercial and vested interest of the tobacco industry and keeping the industry at arms-length. The guidelines call on governments to raise awareness about the addictive and harmful nature of tobacco products, establish measures to limit interactions with the tobacco industry and ensure transparency of these interactions, reject any form of partnership with the tobacco industry, denormalize charity from the tobacco industry, require transparency from the tobacco industry, and not to give any benefits to the industry.
The 2023 report ranked Brunei and Mongolia as top performing countries in Asia in addressing tobacco industry interference. On the other hand, Japan showed the strongest tobacco industry interference, a trend also documented for Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia. In these countries, the tobacco industry’s pervasive influence extends throughout various levels of the bureaucracy, and there are no constraints against its involvement in tobacco control policy development and implementation.
The tobacco industry’s meddling also extends to influencing the policy on electronic smoking devices (ESDs), as evident by its activities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In Thailand, the industry is attempting to overturn the government ban on ESDs.
Fig 1. Overall level of tobacco industry interference in 19 Asian countries. A lower score reflects better implementation of Article 5.3 and its guidelines, while a higher score indicates poor or declining measures to address tobacco industry interference.
Across Asia, the tobacco industry continues to use corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities to whitewash its deadly business and to portray itself as a positive contributor to society. The industry’s CSR activities are a form of sponsorship hence are banned in Brunei, Lao PDR, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, and Thailand, while it is a big challenge in countries where they are not banned, such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam.
With the exception of Brunei, government officials of the 18 other countries engaged in unnecessary interactions with the tobacco industry, and these interactions occurred even in countries that have policies and guidelines forbidding such interactions.
Further, the lack of transparency of these interactions with the tobacco industry remains a problem, and countries are encouraged to establish measures to ensure that such interactions are made public. Brunei and the Philippines have established a procedure and are implementing these measures.
Situations of conflicts of interest are found in nearly all the countries. The revolving door phenomenon, a practice wherein former government officials transition to roles in the tobacco industry are found across Asia. An example of this is the amukadari practice in Japan, which gives the tobacco industry opportunities to influence regulations imposed on its products and business.
Conflicts of interest also happen when the tobacco industry contributes to political causes, as a way to secure their support when they win government elections. This practice remains largely unchecked in Asia, except in Brunei, Lao PDR, and Vietnam.
“There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry and public health interests. Governments must perform their mandate of protecting public health, and this includes protecting their bureaucracies from the undue and malicious meddling of the tobacco industry. The Asian Index shines the light on the tobacco industry’s tactics to block strong measures and sway governments towards providing industry friendly regulatory environments. Countries must remain vigilant and step up their efforts in combating industry interference,” stated SEATCA Executive Director Dr Ulysses Dorotheo.
Val Bugnot, Media and Communications Manager, SEATCA
- ASEAN Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023
- Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023
- SEATCA’s TobaccoWatch
SEATCA is a multi-sectoral non-governmental alliance promoting health and saving lives by assisting ASEAN countries to accelerate and effectively implement the tobacco control measures contained in the WHO FCTC. Acknowledged by governments, academic institutions, and civil society for its advancement of tobacco control in Southeast Asia, the WHO bestowed on SEATCA the World No Tobacco Day Award in 2004 and the WHO Director-General’s Special Recognition Award in 2014.