Feel like a smoke?
If so, it’s hardly surprising. Cambodia, which barely regulates tobacco advertising, is awash in smoking products.
Cigarettes are hawked an average of at least 10 times an hour on television. Like those advertising popular beer brands, huge tobacco billboards loom over major intersections in Phnom Penh. Umbrellas advertising tobacco shade sidewalk cafes and vendor displays line the streets.
Cigarette packages are supposed to carry health warnings, and occasional anti-smoking messages do appear in the media. But the warnings are all but lost in the flood of pro-smoking messages.
Khieu Kanharith, secretary of state for the Ministry of Information, said the huge multinational tobacco companies are doing nothing wrong.
“It’s their right to advertise, including on TV,” he said. If anti-smoking advocates don’t like it, he said, they should work to pass legislation banning tobacco advertising.
In fact, Po Samnang, deputy director of the Health Ministry’s National Health Promotion branch, said the government is organizing a tobacco control committee, which is expected to begin work “very soon.”
The committee, composed of officials from 13 ministries, will examine such issues as the impact of advertising on young people, whether advertising limits should be set and whether taxes should be increased, Po Samnang said.
The panel will be supported by the World Health Organization, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation’s South East Asian Alliance, which plans to spend $10 million over five years on anti-smoking efforts in the region.
Tobacco companies “are allowed to advertise so freely here, compared to other countries,” said Greg Hallen, a technical officer with the WHO.
Government officials said they are well aware that cigarette advertising is effective, particularly regarding adolescents. “Young people smoke to feel more adult, because they think smoking makes them more courageous,” said Eng Kantha Phavy, secretary of state for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Cambodia’s love of smoking goes deep. A 1999 study revealed that 60 percent of urban men and 80 percent of rural men smoke, while the number of female smokers in Phnom Penh rose from 5 percent in 1997 to 8 percent in 1999.
Farmers often raise their own tobacco and roll their own cigarettes, while vendors in urban areas sell either single cigarettes or small bundles virtually everyone can afford.
Cigarettes are so much a part of the culture that they have become part of formal wedding festivities, as brides light cigarettes for their bridegrooms and offer cigarettes to guests at the reception. They are standard gifts for monks, as well.
Cigarettes are currently taxed at 3 percent, a figure which Po Samnang said will increase in the next few years. He also predicts that cigarette advertising will be banned from television “within the next four or five years.”