Past Deadline, Most Cigarettes Still Lack Graphic Pictures

Days after a law went into effect requiring all cigarette packages sold in Cambodia to be plastered with graphic images of the health effects of smoking—blackened lungs and an infant on a respirator—there was little evidence of the new packaging in the capital.

As of Friday, all old cigarette packaging was to be covered by a sticker and all new packs were to be printed with the gruesome images in an effort to reduce smoking in a country where an estimated 10,000 Cambodians die annually from tobacco-related illnesses.

The image of an infant breathing through a respirator due to second-hand smoke is seen on cartons of cigarettes at a store in Phnom Penh on Monday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
The image of an infant breathing through a respirator due to second-hand smoke is seen on cartons of cigarettes at a store in Phnom Penh on Monday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Tobacco companies with stock already on hand were required to provide stickers with a health warning that could be added to cigarette packs, said Chhea Chhordaphea, director of the National Center for Health Promotion at the Ministry of Health.

“But the new ones must have a pictorial warning,” she said. “They have to make the change.”

Tobacco companies face a fine of 4 million riel, or $1,000, for failing to comply with the requirement that more than 50 percent of packaging contains a warning image, while vendors will be fined 10,000 riel ($2.50) per offense, though individuals familiar with the regulation were unable to immediately clarify how an offense would be determined. The requirement was laid out in an October 2015 sub-decree that gave tobacco companies nine months to prepare new packaging.

Government officials have already begun inspecting cigarette packaging and a team had fanned out across the city to look for violators among Phnom Penh’s main markets and retailers, Ms. Chhordaphea said on Tuesday.

An informal survey found many Phnom Penh cigarette vendors had yet to see the new graphics or the substitute stickers.

“There was only one cigarette company that told me they would provide stickers with graphic images to put on the cigarette packs, but I have not yet received them,” Ang Sokheang, 54, who owns Lay Sokheng convenience shop in Prampi Makara district, said on Monday.

“I haven’t seen a single pack in Phnom Penh that has an image,” she added.

Employees and managers at many corner shops, convenience stores and grocery stores said few examples of the updated packaging had arrived.

Among hundreds of cigarette packs being sold at a streetside shop run by Sor Him in Daun Penh district’s Chey Chumneah commune, just a handful of Mevius packs were printed with the images of damaged lungs. Ms. Him, 55, said they had arrived a few days earlier.

“When I give these to the customers, they ask for the previous versions that don’t have the pictures,” she said, with a laugh.

She said the packaging might cause a decrease in demand. “If the smokers don’t buy them, I will stop selling them,” Ms. Him said.

That’s exactly the point, Ms. Chhordaphea said. “Evidence showed that it is effective in preventing people from starting up smoking and to encourage users to quit,” and to stay off cigarettes, she said.

Tan Yen Lian, information manager for the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, said that tobacco companies had nine months to prepare the new packaging and should already be in full compliance.

“That is more than sufficient time for all cigarette packs to carry the warnings,” she said in an email.

“This measure is particularly important for smokers with low literacy who will now be able to get the [health] information in an effective manner.”

“Pictorial warnings are also effective in discouraging children from smoking,” she said.

Cambodia is the eighth Asean country to enact a law requiring graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging, said the Alliance’s senior policy adviser, Mary Assunta. Burma and Laos will be the last to implement them, in September and October, respectively, she said.

Sitting in a row at Independence Monument Park, three men took drags from cigarettes Monday afternoon. Ly Vannak, 44, who works as a guard at the park, said he had smoked since the age of 15, and the graphic images were unlikely to break his habit.

“When I see those pictures, I am afraid,” Mr. Vannak said “But I still smoke, because I’m addicted to cigarettes.”

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