The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Breaking the Habit (I): The Growing Pains of Achieving a Smoke-Free ASEAN

Posted in Health and Human Security by NTSblog on August 10, 2012

Conflicting government and regional tobacco-control policies are part of the growing pains of achieving a smoke-free ASEAN. Despite global and regional initiatives, almost 20 per cent of tobacco-related deaths in the world occur in this region and tobacco consumption and the lifestyle associated with it poses a threat to health and human security.

It may be the habit that is the hardest to break but let’s face it, smoking kills. Globally, tobacco kills one person every six seconds according to the WHO. It kills more people every day but the irony of it is that tobacco-related diseases like cancer, heart disease and asthma among others are chronic or non-communicable diseases that can be prevented. With more than 125 million smokers (30 per cent of the ASEAN population), ASEAN is a viable target market for the tobacco industry and a potent locale for a health crisis.

As the leading cause of preventable death in the world, the gravity of the problem of tobacco use and consumption among the world’s population is undeniable. Tobacco control has slowly been included in the global health agenda since the detrimental long-term effects on one’s health were exposed in 1964. ASEAN in particular has considered tobacco use as a health crisis and has seen how smoking-related healthcare costs and the long-term health risks on both smoker and non-smoker (even the unborn child) weigh heavily on health security. This is evident as ASEAN health ministers’ apparently recommended that tobacco be excluded from the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) tariff list during their talks last July. However, it is unclear what will come out of this recommendation. On a positive note, the ASEAN Headquarters in Jakarta was recently declared as a smoke-free environment as part of the Towards a Smoke-Free ASEAN campaign. Do these initiatives give ample warning to the tobacco industry that ASEAN is serious in strictly abiding by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and implementing a smoke-free ASEAN? It did establish the ASEAN Focal Points on Tobacco Control with the aim to protect generations of the ASEAN community from the threats posed by tobacco on health, society, the economy and the environment. Regrettably, this is where the travails of effective implementation come into play.

This September, Jakarta will host one of the largest gatherings of the tobacco industry in Asia- the World Tobacco Asia 2012. Although ASEAN reported that Indonesia has declared seven smoke-free cities and two smoke-free provinces including Jakarta, its welcoming arms to multinational tobacco companies paint a conflicting picture. How could Indonesia declare Jakarta a smoke-free province and all the while host a tobacco exposition in the same province where a supposedly smoke-free ASEAN Headquarters is located? The organizers do know that Indonesia remains one of the few remaining countries which has not signed or ratified the FCTC. Given the millions of smokers in the region, this seems to be an exciting prospect for market expansion from a corporate standpoint but an atrocity from the perspective of health security.

These contradictions are part of the growing pains of achieving a smoke-free ASEAN. This is where tobacco industry interference has come into play and will be discussed in the next blog post.

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