New Internationalist

Carve up

Issue 369

Tobacco companies are riding a wave in Malaysia, buoyed by social acceptance and mixed messages from the Government. Mary Assunta reports.

WHAT would you do if your father or older brother asked you to buy him cigarettes?' NV Subbarow, a rural education officer with the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), watches a group of nervous pre-teens as they whisper and grimace. Shy sniggers from the under-12s gathered around Subbarow signal that tobacco education in this Malaysian village has to go beyond the usual health hazards info. The legal and social aspects of smoking must be tackled too.

Children question why the Government doesn't just ban tobacco if it is so lethal

NV Subbarow has been taking the tobacco control campaign across the country for more than 20 years. The smoking scourge in Malaysia is all-pervasive so he talks prevention with people of all ages and social strata.

Children have easy access to cigarettes, despite the fact that it is illegal to sell tobacco to minors. Besides cigarettes, rural shops provide a wide selection of groceries and shopkeepers are well known to the families they serve. When a boy or girl turns up at the shop on an elder's behalf, refusing to sell cigarettes to the child translates as denying the elder's patronage.

In towns, if a shopkeeper refuses sales to one teen, the next store a few metres away might not be so strict. Who wants to lose business when enforcement of the law is lax anyway?

Tobacco use is entrenched and hard to avoid; about half of the adult male population smokes. Walls and pay counters in coffee shops across the country are plastered with tobacco adverts. For many male office staff and blue-collar workers, the day starts with a cheap breakfast of roti canai (pancake) or nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) and a cigarette at the roadside stall.

In rural communities it is common for cigarettes to be distributed to volunteers, including teenagers, at a kenduri (feast) where the whole village participates in the preparation and celebrations.

In an environment where the social acceptability of tobacco is high, coaxing children to hold back rings hollow. Children typically question why the Government doesn't just ban tobacco if it is so lethal or why it encourages tobacco farming, or worse, why their parents, teachers and community leaders still smoke.

As elsewhere in Asia, social taboo has kept smoking among women at low levels. While only 3.5 per cent of Malaysian women smoke, smoking among teenage girls has shot up from 4.8 per cent to 8 per cent – a trend attributed to the influence of advertisements linking tobacco to glamour.

But the biggest challenge for health advocates is trying to persuade politicians to do their job. Tobacco control legislation has been in place since 1994 and the Malaysian Government acknowledges that smoking has reached epidemic proportions. It claims 10,000 lives a year and is the country's top killer.

But glaring legal loopholes, particularly in advertising and promotions, allow the top three tobacco transnationals, British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris (Altria) and Japan Tobacco International (JTI), to conduct their business in a friendly environment.

Despite a ban on tobacco advertising on TV and radio, companies are allowed to sponsor sports events, pop concerts, parties and ‘adventure activities', earning Malaysia notoriety as the world capital for indirect advertising.

Last October, JTI's Salem brand sponsored a pop concert in Penang featuring Craig David, with the state tourism board's blessing. ‘The right hand does not know what the left hand is doing,' according to Subbarow. The March Formula One Grand Prix race, an event endorsed by the top leadership in Malaysia, is a good example of the lack of coordination between Government departments. The Grand Prix is exempt from the ban on tobacco advertising. BAT and Philip Morris were allowed to sponsor street parties and other events during the race. Schoolchildren and college students were encouraged to attend, offered cheap tickets and allocated 20 per cent of the seats.

Ironically, a month earlier the Prime Minister had launched a multi-million-dollar public education campaign focused on encouraging children to ‘Say No' to smoking. Campaigners doubt it will have any real impact and see it as a diversion from the need to tighten up legislation.

Though Malaysia is a relatively small market for tobacco in Asia, the tobacco big three all have factories there, making it a strategic regional player. In addition, there's no competition from local brands – unlike Indonesia with its Kretek (clove cigarette) industry or Thailand, where the tobacco monopoly is controlled by established local brands. Malaysia also offers tempting tax breaks for the export of international brands to surrounding countries.

The Malaysian tobacco industry is valued at about $1.44 billion, of which BAT earns the lion's share – approximately $1 billion. The domestic market consumes about 70 per cent of output. The rest is exported to Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Brunei and the duty-free market.

In November 2005, Kuala Lumpur is slated to host a trade expo called ‘Emerging Tobacco Markets' where tobacco barons will strategize on how to further exploit Asia, the most important future market for the global tobacco industry.

Asian smokers inhale about 50 per cent of the world's cigarettes. Reason enough for the big boys to salivate. As the global tobacco industry puts it: Asia is ‘one of the last regions where tobacco consumption still increases every year.' Malaysia's market is viewed in a BAT internal document as a cash cow to be protected and milked. Unless legislation comes down hard to curb tobacco use, it'll be deadly business as usual.

Mary Assunta is doing PhD research on the tobacco industry at the School of Public Health, University of Sydney. She is also Chair of the Framework Convention Alliance (http://www.fctc.org) which unites NGO support for the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (see link here).

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