On Wednesday, Cambodia’s National Assembly unanimously passed a draft anti-tobacco law. It is intended to curb the current $100 million tobacco industry in Cambodia, a country in which 11,000 people die each year from smoking-related causes.
Prime Minister Hun Sen noted that 75% of women and 80% of children are affected by smoke at home, while 90% of restaurant- and bar-goers are exposed, and 50% of Cambodians are affected in their workplaces. He also emphasized that the cost of cancer treatment for patients ($10,000 each per year on average) greatly outweighs what the country’s smokers spend on tobacco products.
The new law will tighten restrictions on sales, advertising, and where smoking is allowed. Cambodia is already a signatory to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which imposes regulations over the production, sale, distribution, advertisement, and taxation of tobacco. They all aim to educate people and cut their tobacco use. However, Cambodia’s new law goes beyond the WHO’s requirements, in that graphic visual warnings of smoking’s harmful health consequences will take up 55% of cigarette packets compared to the 30% required by the framework. This will be more effective at educating rural Cambodians, of whom many are illiterate. The government has also said it will begin subsidizing farmers who stop growing tobacco in favor of other crops. Dr. Yel Daravuth, who works with the WHO Cambodia office, said the law was supported by 90% of Cambodians.
Nepal is also on a successful anti-smoking crusade, and in March it received the prestigious Bloomberg Philanthropies Award for Global Tobacco Control for its efforts. Among other strong measures to curb tobacco use, beginning on May 15 graphic picture and text warnings must be placed on 90% of the packaging for all tobacco products. It follows Nepal’s landmark Tobacco Control and Regulatory Act of 2011 that banned the use of all forms of tobacco in public places, including on public transportation. The tobacco industry has fought hard with lawsuits but has been roundly defeated there.
These are two encouraging examples for the WHO’s current target of a 30% reduction in global tobacco consumption by 2025. However, the rise of smoking in China is canceling out the declines in other countries. China is home to nearly one third of the world’s smokers — over 300 million. As China grew wealthier, its average smoker’s consumption shot up from 730 cigarettes a year in 1972 to 6,200 cigarettes in 2013. Although approximately 1.2 million Chinese die each year from tobacco-related diseases, plus another 100,000 from the effects of secondhand smoke, tobacco use has remained steady in China since 2006. (The Chinese authorities have been slow to acknowledge this health crisis, in part because tobacco production and sales by the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration has been contributing 7-10% of total annual central government revenues, writes the New York Times.) Tobacco use is growing in certain poorer parts of the world, including some African countries and other parts of Asia, but due to its massive population, China’s impact dwarfs the rest.
That said, Cambodia and Nepal show that culture and tradition are not insurmountable obstacles to curbing tobacco use. A ban on smoking in all indoor public places will go into effect in June in Beijing. Could this be the turning point for China and thus the world?