Tobacco Firms Fire Up Promotions as Gov’t Prepares Ad Ban

On a humid Saturday night last month, the fights were on at the TV 3 studio. While kick boxers readied themselves on stage, other deadly agents huddled at the gate.

Eight cigarette promotion girls, dressed in red silk dresses, stood handing out free packs of Eagle brand cigarettes. A thick cloud of tobacco smoke soon rose above the stadium as men, some of them in their early teens, fumbled with their free packs.

“Cigarette companies say that the advertising is just to change people’s choice of brand,” Greg Hallen, a technical adviser with the World Health Organization said last week. “Handing out free cigarettes is not just about an attempt to change people’s brand choice—it is to get people to start smoking.”

Smoking is physically addictive. As of 2003,

54 percent of Cambodian men smoke, as do an estimated 6 percent of women. According to a 2001 survey, 87 percent of smokers in Phnom Penh wanted to quit the habit but could not.

Smoking is also one of the world’s leading killers—responsible for lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease. It has also been linked as a cause to many other sorts of cancer. A WHO treaty banning ads for tobacco products has received the endorsement of 168 countries.

Just last week Thailand imposed a smoking ban on all public parks and stadiums. This is  marked contrast to policies here, according to  Dr Yel Daravuth, program assistant for the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative. “In Thailand they have enlisted celebrities in their anti-smoking campaign,” he said. “Here they have enlisted top celebrities to promote cigarettes.”

In May 2003, an interministerial council charged with the regulation of tobacco ap­proved a sweeping draft law, intended to be implemented at the end of last year, that would have banned all cigarette advertising, mandated smoke-free workplaces, imposed “sin” taxes on cigarettes and required warning labels on all packaging, according to a copy of the draft.

“None of these four [measures] has been implemented yet in Cambodia,” Hallen said, noting that during the recent Water Festival bridges were festooned with tobacco ads.

The deadlock that resulted from the July 2003 elections put the law on the back burner. Dr Lim Thai Pheang, director of the Min­istry of Health’s Center for Health Promotion, said Monday that the draft law is “stuck,” awaiting an endorsement letter from Health Min­ister Dr Nuth Sokhom.

While some familiar with the draft are hopeful the law will be passed in 2005, others question whether unseen industry pressures will stall it now that the new government is in place.

The tobacco industry is working against the law, Hallen said, “not publicly, but secretly as far as we can tell.”

Health Minister Nuth Sokhom said Monday that he strongly supports a complete ban on tobacco advertising in Cambodia. But, he said, “I would like to sit down with the WHO and other concerned organizations before sending this law to the Council of Ministers. I have to defend the law before the Council, so I need to have all the details discussed.”

The minister said that he has not been contacted by tobacco companies regarding the ban. “I do not doubt that they will have something to say about it, but we will make our argument as well,” he said.

Asked Monday whether British American Tobacco, producer of top-selling local brand Ara cigarettes, supports a ban, spokesperson Theirry de Roland Peel said BAT Cambodia has been at the forefront in supporting the government in adopting and implementing sensible regulation on cigarette advertising since 2001. He added that BAT has voluntarily withdrawn television and newspaper advertising for its product.

One of the things Nuth Sokhum will likely discuss with organizations is whether the draft ban or ratification of an international treaty on to­bacco control should be dealt with first, Lim Thai Pheang said.

In May 2004, Cambodia signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Sig­natories to the treaty are required to ban all to­­bacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship within five years and place warning labels covering 50 percent of packaging. It commits governments to encour­ag­ing smoke-free public spaces.

The agreement awaits approval by the National Assembly.

Dr Lim Thai Pheang cautioned that once the law is passed by the National Assembly, there will be still significant hurdles. “As you know with other laws, such as those governing pharm­a­cies, implementation is the real issue,” he said.

 

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