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HEALTH: Thai Authorities Have Marlboro Man Fuming

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 13 2002 (IPS) - Thailand’s public health policies have got the Marlboro Man shivering in his pants.

The Thai health authorities’ move to place graphic warnings on the cover of cigarette packets has prompted a warning from Philip Morris, the giant tobacco company that manufactures and produces Marlboro cigarettes.

This dispute could intensify in the coming weeks given Philip Morris’ reactions to the Thai government’s plan — including a threat to sue the public health ministry. After all, at the heart of this dispute is the question: Who decides what appears on the cover of a cigarette packet?

For the moment however, health officials here are undaunted. They expect Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan to endorse new regulations in the weeks ahead that would require all companies manufacturing cigarettes for smokers in Thailand to place graphic health warnings on cigarette packets.

“We are not taking the Philip Morris threat seriously. We should stand up to such threats,” says Dr Hatai Chitanondh, president of the Institute for Thai Health Promotion. “This is a public health issue.”

“The government has the right to introduce regulations to protect Thai people from ill health,” adds Bung-on Ritthiphakdee, a consultant at Action on Smoking and Health Foundation Thailand (ASH Thailand), a non-governmental anti-smoking lobby. “It is a fundamental expectation of a government.”

Already, the health ministry has identified 12 pictures to appear on cigarette packets, including those portraying graphic pictures of lung cancer, heart disease and a curved, limp cigarette to show the impotence suffered by male smokers.

And once the new regulations are endorsed, the companies supplying cigarettes to Thailand — including Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco and the state-owned Thailand Tobacco Monopoly — will have a 12-month period to make changes and then introduce the full-colour warnings on their products.

Philip Morris, however, perceives such efforts as a violation on two fronts, according to reports appearing in the local media.

On the one hand, the tobacco giant argues that the health ministry requirements would infringe on its freedom of speech and communication.

On the other, the tobacco multinational says that its trademark rights are being violated. This, it adds, is a feature protected under the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) agreement.

The cigarette manufacturer made its views known in a letter sent to ranking government officials, including the health minister, in February, but it was reported about for the first time in the local media this week.

Philip Morris’ effort reveals something more — that the outer cover of cigarette packets has emerged as “an important battleground”, says Ross Hammond, a consultant at the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids.)

“As other forms of tobacco marketing are restricted, the tobacco package itself has become an increasingly important part of the industry’s marketing strategy,” he adds, “which is why they are fighting the efforts by the Thai health authorities.”

So far, only Brazil and Canada have public health policies that require the display by cigarette packets of graphic coloured warnings. The European Union is working on similar measures.

Available literature on anti-smoking websites point to the dramatic success achieved through such measures.

In Canada, for instance, a year after the introduction of the graphic warnings, 44 percent of smokers stated they had given thought to kicking the habit and 27 percent said they smoked less in their homes.

That, no doubt, troubles the tobacco industry given the broader implications of Thailand’s plans – it might well encourage other Asian countries to follow its lead at a time when the tobacco multinationals see Asia as a prime market to push its products.

East Asia, for instance, has gained notoriety for having the “second highest annual per capita growth rate in tobacco consumption,” according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

This high prevalence stems from some 50 to 80 percent consumption rates among men in countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and China. In South Korea, one in three of the country’s 46 million people smoke an average of one packet a day.

Asian youth are also an increasing number among the world’s smokers, currently estimated at 1.1 billion. In Indonesia, 89 percent of young men smoke before they reach 20, according to an earlier study by Minja Kim Chole, a population and health expert at the East-West Centre.

In Thailand, more women are puffing away. One survey by ASH Thailand placed the number of female smokers in Thai capital to be around 96,000, which is 33,000 more than the 63,000 female smokers in the city in 1999.

Thus, it is little wonder why Thailand’s current efforts are being cheered on by Asian anti-smoking activists.

“It definitely serves as an example for other South-east Asian countries to follow, especially since Thailand is a developing country,” says Mary Assunta of the Consumers Association of Penang.

“It sends a strong message to other South-east Asian countries that have low incomes or are developing economies that it is possible to have effective tobacco control measures that protect public health,” she adds.

But that is not all Thailand will have to offer its peers in its role as Asia’s first country to push for graphic tobacco warnings.

It has been three years since the Thai government triumphed on another issue concerning the tobacco industry — getting it to reveal to the ministry of public health the list of additives and other substances they add to their cigarettes.

That achievement, which came after five years of intense political pressure from the U.S., British and Japanese governments, has “given us confidence to face to any threats from Philip Morris,” says Dr Hatai.

And if a legal battle does ensue between Thai health authorities and Philip Morris, the verdict should help answer the question: Who decides what appears on the cover of a cigarette packet?

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