Whether it is Winston’s (‘the taste of America’), Rothmans (‘the kingsize cigarette of International success’), or simply the gold box of Benson and Hedges, cigarette promotion in Malaysia has been through the promise of status and success. And all over the country farmers, fishermen and rubber tappers, drinking toddy or sitting in coffee shops, have their flip-top packets prominently on the table in front of them — symbol that they too can share the good life.
In a recent survey of rural spending habits, at least two members smoked about 30 cigarettes a day in 70 per cent of households. And sales have been increasing — at a steady five per cent a year. Now more than 50 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women smoke (compared with 37 per cent of American males and 29 per cent of women). The major difference however, is that in Malaysia, as in most of the Third World, figures are rising; whilst in the US, Britain and most other Western countries per capita consumption has been steadily declining.
Whilst tobacco exports and imports are easy to track, the deadly consequences — in terms of heart disease, cancer and bronchial complaints — are more elusive. In Malaysia only 31 per cent of deaths are medically certified. But even these figures show a startling surge to top-of-the-league position for cigarette-connected illnesses and deaths. There are now 5,000-6,000 cases of cancer every year at the Radiotherapy Institute in Kuala Lumpur.
The three companies that dominate Malaysia’s cigarette market are Malayan Tobacco Company, Rothmans and Reynolds. The Malayan Tobacco Corporation (MTC) — part owned by the Malaysian government — is a subsidy of British American Tobacco, Britain’s second biggest company, ranked 49th largest in the world. MTC controls roughly three quarters of the Malaysian cigarette market, reckoned to be worth $350 million a year.
MTC’s biggest seller is Benson and Hedges. But what Malaysian smokers may not realise is that this, their favourite brand, racks up 31 milligrams of tar and nicotine while the British equivalent only has 17 milligrams. MTC has claimed that these figures are inaccurate: the real levels are much lower. ‘However for competition reasons we cannot disclose the exact figures.’ But MTC spokesmen have made it clear that the technology exists in their local cigarette-making factories to reduce tar and nicotine content ‘if and when there is a shift in preferences towards lower tar and nicotine cigarettes.’
Building up local allies has been central to MTC’s success. Working hand-in-glove with the government’s National Tobacco Board, they have encouraged expansion in tobacco growing. Today more than 55 per cent of Malaysia’s tobacco consumption is grown locally by over 44,000 farming families — who receive expert advice from government and industry representatives, guaranteed prices, and subsidies totalling $7.5 million from private companies and government funds over five years.
The Government obviously welcomes a cash crop that increases the income of small farmers. Even more welcome is the revenue from tobacco taxes which supplies something like a half of the country’s income. But the authorities are also aware of the cost to Malaysians’ health.
In response to a nationwide campaign last year by more than a hundred organisations, including the Malaysian Medical Association and spearheaded by the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP), the government banned cigarette adverts on television and radio. They also prohibited smoking in all government offices, outlawed cigarette advertising in government publications, encouraged state governments to forbid billboard advertising, and raised cigarette taxes.
But the newspaper headline ‘Ban on smoking won’t affect tobacco industry’ late last year was probably accurate. The tobacco industry’s future still looks bright, said the newspaper, because of government support for increases in tobacco farming, stable prices and expansion of the National Tobacco Board’s credit scheme.
As CAP’s President Mohammed Idris has remarked, ‘There is no point in issuing weak and ineffective warnings that "Smoking is hazardous to your health" and at the same time devoting 35,000 acres of land to tobacco cultivation.’