Asia's pushback to big tobacco

BANGKOK, Thailand – Assailed by the western world’s laws, taxes and anti-smoking mores, the global tobacco industry has little choice but to keep pushing eastward into Asia.

Tobacco bosses learned this week that some Asians are ready to push back.

This week, more than 500 screaming protesters converged outside TabInfo Asia 2009, the region’s largest tobacco summit in years. More than an expo, the event is also a strategy session conducted in secrecy.

“As rules, regulations, and perceptions of tobacco change around the globe, Asia Pacific has become one of the world's most important tobacco markets,” according to promotional materials.

The event, set up by the Raleigh, N.C.-based Tobacco Reporter magazine, invited major industry players gathered to discuss “operating in a world of bans” and “ingenious ways of operating in an increasingly regulated, plain-pack, dark market environment.”

“Asia is the fastest growing tobacco market in the world. They can’t afford to ignore this region,” said Prakit Vathesatogkit, executive secretary of the Bangkok-based Action on Smoking and Health Foundation.

“We can’t really stop them from coming,” Prakit said, “but we can try to stop them from circumventing regulation.”

On Wednesday, the summit’s first day, attendees were beset by a loose coalition of Southeast Asian anti-smoking protesters. Outside the event doors, a 500-plus crowd of mostly college students screamed at men in suits entering Bangkok’s largest convention center.

The opposition group also presented nearly 90,000 signatures from Asians opposed to the event. Under pressure from the government, the state-owned Thailand Tobacco Monopoly, which produces the kingdom’s top-selling cigarette brands, pulled its exhibitions and replaced them with booths promoting Thai tourism.

“The event organizers were quite upset,” Prakit said. “I admit, this is an unfamiliar role for health groups. Normally, we don’t stage protests. But this was a special situation.”

Organizers refused repeated requests by GlobalPost for interviews, both via e-mail and in person. Even the event’s exact location was obscured and marked only with a sign reading “Private Event.” Journalists, an organizer said, were forbidden from entering.

Less regulated than the Western world, Asia holds great promise for the tobacco industry. There are already some 125 million smokers in the 10-country Association of Southeast Nations, which stretches from Burma to the Philippines, according to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance.

That accounts for about 31 percent of the region's population. China, the world’s largest cigarette market, is home to 350 million smokers.

Asia’s various anti-smoking laws are also easy to exploit, said Mary Assunta, a senior policy advisor for the alliance. Though Thailand was picked to host the tobacco summit, its anti-smoking laws are actually some of the region’s most strict.

As in Canada, Singapore and many other countries, all cigarette packs in Thailand are splashed with disturbing images, such as long-time smokers’ blackened gums or blistered throat openings. Advertising cigarettes is banned. And when actors smoke on television, their face becomes a distorted blur as they start to inhale.

“Thailand is what the tobacco industry calls a ‘dark market,’” Assunta said. “The laws are very stringent.” But in nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia, she said, many anti-smoking laws are either loose or widely ignored.

“Even if there’s a regulation, if it’s not enforced the industry has a field day,” said Assunta.

The Philippines’ ban on in-store ads, for example, has been flouted by advertising on the retail store’s facade. A plan to print graphic photos on packs sold in Cambodia, the alliance said, was watered down to a simple text-only health warning.

But even in Thailand, where politicians have severely restricted laws on promoting and selling cigarettes, roughly 46 percent of the adult male population uses tobacco, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey.

The aptly named Thailand Tobacco Monopoly, run by the government, still dominates the market by levying high taxes on foreign brands. Though some health advocates want the government out of the smoking business altogether, other activists actually prefer a state-owned manufacturer to less controllable private, foreign tobacco firms.

“Thai politicians are definitely afraid to been seen with links to big tobacco industries,” Prakit said. “They’re afraid of the exposure.”

Anti-smoking advocates are particularly fearful that tobacco giants at the Bangkok summit will collectively plot more ways to target females and teenagers, which offer the greatest growth potential, Assunta said.

After a similar summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia four years ago, she said, tobacco firms introduced pastel cigarette packs to Southeast Asian markets. “They’re like little lipstick-size packs,” Assunta said. “Women remain a huge untapped market here.”

Many of the strategy sessions at TabInfo are devoted to innovation. According to event documents, one brainstorming workshop for tobacco industry leaders promised to explore “radical new growing methods, tobacco or nicotine delivery products, manufacturing techniques, substitute products, etc.

“Brainstorming at its best,” the schedule said, “And, who knows, the next big idea might emerge!”