Tobacco companies have won a six-month delay in implementing a government order requiring them to put health warnings on cigarette packets.
Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh last month signed an agreement drawn up by tobacco companies calling for a delay until the end of 1998, according to a copy of the document seen Tuesday.
The successful proposal was the second attempt by tobacco companies to defer the deadline, following an agreement by the Council of Ministers last December that all cigarette packets should carry a Khmer-language health warning by July.
The proposal accepted by the Commerce Ministry commits tobacco importers to carry a health-warning sticker on their cigarette packets starting Jan 1, 1999.
In a separate proposal for domestic manufacturers, submitted to the Industry Ministry, domestic manufacturers agree to print the warning on the side of packets.
Industry Minister Pou Sothirak said Tuesday he had not yet agreed to a delay, but added that his ministry would now likely follow Cham Prasidh’s lead.
“I supported the July date [originally] recommended by Cham Prasidh, but if he accepts the delay, what can I do?” he said. “I accept that cigarettes are hazardous to health and I want the public to know about it. There should have been warnings on cigarettes months, years ago, whenever they first came to Cambodia. So at least there will be warnings in six months.”
Cham Prasidh was unavailable for comment Tuesday on why he had signed the agreement, which was drawn up by tobacco industry representatives after a series of meetings with officials from the Ministries of Commerce, Industry and Health.
Nigel Venning, corporate affairs manager of British American Tobacco, the country’s largest producer of cigarettes, said the tobacco manufacturers called for the delay to give them time to change their packaging.
But Dr Lum Thai Peng, director of health education at the Ministry of Health, which first proposed the warnings, dismissed the industry’s claim as procrastination.
“I think the reason that they don’t have the time is not the real reason,” he said. “The tobacco companies are trying to delay. The minister of commerce can delay the order, but I think he cannot stop it.”
Lum Thai Peng added he hoped Pou Sothirak would not bow to pressure from the tobacco industry to put off the order.
“The Ministry of Industry has to remain strong. The government knows the health costs of cigarettes. They have to find some way to protect the health of the people. We don’t give priority to private companies.”
According to a World Health Organization report published last year, there are 223 brands of cigarettes available here. But to date no manufacturer has volunteered to carry a Khmer-language warning, despite a professed policy by BAT to carry local language warnings in all countries where no legislation exists.
BAT introduced an English-language warning on their top domestic brand, Ara, when it was relaunched last November. Venning justified the company’s decision to use English on the newly redesigned packaging as “a first step towards a Khmer-language health warning.”