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Myanmar needs to stub out growing tobacco usage

Myanmar is experiencing tremendous economic growth. With a young, growing population and a liberalised economy, it has been slated as one of 20 ‘markets of the future’ that will offer the most opportunities for consumer goods companies.

Tobacco has been identified as one of Myanmar’s top 20 key industries. Its market size is worth an estimated US$450 million — up there with dairy products and dried processed foods. The compound annual growth rate from 2013–18 for tobacco is 16 per cent, overtaking apparel (14 per cent) and consumer appliances and electronics (15 per cent).

With market liberalisation, British American Tobacco (BAT) re-entered Myanmar in 2013 a decade after it exited the country. When re-establishing itself in the country, it announced that it will invest US$50 million in a tobacco manufacturing factory. BAT already has a significant 22 per cent market share in the growing cigarette market.

Myanmar currently has over 6 million smokers. Like other Asian countries, a high percentage — 44 per cent — of adult men smoke. This number is set to increase given the growing adolescent smoking population.

In 2010 cigarette sales in Myanmar were about 13 billion sticks, but these sales are projected to almost double to 25 billion sticks in 2018. Myanmar’s projection is the highest increase among all ASEAN countries. This is bad news for the public health system given that Myanmar already has more than 70,000 tobacco-related deaths annually. Myanmar also has the lowest Human Development Index among Asian countries with a global ranking of 148 out of 188 and public health expenditure is a low 1.8 per cent of GDP.

Myanmar is a typical developing country in that the bulk of smokers are from the lower-income category. Cigarettes are also extremely cheap in Myanmar and within easy reach for the poor. The most popular pack of cigarettes costs only US$0.57. A survey on smoking indicates that about 40 per cent of Myanmar’s youths can purchase cigarettes from a store. Even more worrying is that 15 per cent of non-smoking youths have indicated that they intend to start smoking next year — again the highest percentage in the ASEAN region.

Myanmar has some basic tobacco control measures in place to address the problem. Since ratifying the global tobacco treaty in 2004 — the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) — the country has passed legislation banning all tobacco advertising and making public places smoke-free, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Myanmar needs to further increase taxes on tobacco products and put it out of reach for the poor and youths. While tobacco advertising and promotions are banned, there are loop holes that can be exploited. Myanmar faces sleek marketing tactics from transnational tobacco companies who take advantage of government officials’ inexperience.

For example, in 2016 Myanmar passed legislation requiring a 75 per cent pictorial health warning on tobacco packs, making it the second largest health warning in the region after Thailand’s 85 per cent. Japan Tobacco International placed an ‘announcement’ in a major newspaper (Myanmar Times) in October on how it will be complying with the Health Ministry’s requirements. The announcement showed photos of all its packs with and without the pictorial health warnings — an outright advertisement for its brands.

Penalties for violations are miniscule for wealthy tobacco companies. Even if authorities act against a company for non-compliance of pictorial health warnings, the fine is a paltry US$7.95 for the first offence.

This is where civil society groups come into play, they should play a more prominent role in exposing the unethical and exploitative practices of transnational tobacco companies operating in Myanmar.

It is important for Myanmar to keep abreast of ASEAN countries’ achievements on tobacco control measures. Most countries have already banned advertising at points of sale. Brunei, Thailand and Singapore have banned pack displays at retail outlets. These are the next steps for tobacco control in Myanmar.

But Myanmar lacks the resources needed for enforcement — particularly staff. It is the only country in the ASEAN region that has not committed national funds for tobacco control efforts. Strengthening tobacco control measures and allocating more resources to enforcement will send a strong message to the public and private sector that the government is serious about protecting public health from the ravages of tobacco.

Mary Assunta is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA).

Source: East Asia Forum

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