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Asia's pushback to big tobacco

The cigarette industry wants a bigger slice of Asia. Activists want them to butt out.

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!”