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

Tobacco Control: Prioritising Public Health over Free-Trade

Posted in Health and Human Security by NTSblog on June 11, 2013

Public health should not be undermined by economic priorities, especially priorities that are dictated by the tobacco industry. Tobacco control efforts in Southeast Asia face alarming challenges with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Even though the TPP only involves four ASEAN member countries (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam), the tobacco industry’s strong lobby presence particularly on intellectual property (IP) negotiations can possibly undermine whatever progress ASEAN has made in banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship (TAPS). ASEAN countries have imposed bans on TAPS except for Indonesia and the Philippines. Aside from Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines, ASEAN countries have also banned publicity for tobacco companies’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities.

A cigarette pack is the simplest but most crucial form of marketing tobacco and a cigarette brand. The tobacco industry will fight long and hard to keep cigarette packs appealing to the public in the guise of protecting their IP rights. The tobacco industry has been aggressive in protecting their IP rights to legally counter stringent tobacco control policies in Australia and Singapore under the framework of trade agreements such as the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. It is then not surprising that Thailand’s new graphic health warning (GHW) regulation to be implemented in October 2013 has already met strong opposition from tobacco companies. Thailand will have the largest GHWs in the world, covering 85 per cent of the front and back of cigarette packages. Currently, Brunei has the largest GHWs in tobacco products in ASEAN (75 per cent), followed by Thailand (55 per cent), Singapore (50 per cent) and Malaysia (50 per cent).  By November 2013, Vietnam will also require GHWs (50 per cent) on tobacco packages. Indonesia’s ‘fresh’ tobacco control law introduced in January 2013 is still relatively weak, with regulations still pending. As noted in a previous blog, ASEAN critically needs leadership to go ‘plain’ as Australia did.

With social media, marketing tobacco across borders has never been easier, even in countries with strict tobacco control regulations and even without free-trade agreements. Tobacco companies are also exploiting CSR through charities and ‘sustainable’ tobacco farming to gain political leverage and promote tobacco. Indonesia and the Philippines still allow TAPS at points-of-sale (POS) such as convenience stores and road side stalls, and in social media along with Myanmar and Vietnam. The ASEAN Focal Points on Tobacco Control (AFPTC) has emphasised that ASEAN has to ‘step-up’ the implementation of comprehensive bans on TAPS and the harmonisation of cross-border tobacco advertising through all media platforms, including the internet.

These challenges can be overcome through strict regulation and monitoring by ASEAN governments. Tobacco control policies with ‘teeth’ are not only prudent but also imperative if they are to be effective. The implementation of ASEAN member-states’ commitments to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) (including non-signatory Indonesia as noted in a previous blog) warrants extremely strong political will and less interference on public health policy formulation from the tobacco industry. Negotiators in the TPP have to acknowledge that the FCTC requires that multilateral agreements be compatible with the FCTC including taxation and price measures. Tobacco products should thus be excluded in free-trade agreements to discourage industry opposition to government policies on tobacco control, particularly on banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship to reduce demand.

This blog post has been written by Gianna Gayle AmulShe is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Non—Traditional Security (NTS) Studies in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).


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