Phan The Son spends more these days on cigarettes due to his aversion to the compulsory warning stickers that feature rotting teeth, wheezing old men and grotesque surgical photographs of tumors.
“The packs without the scary images sell for between 20-50 percent more,” said the 31-year-old IT technician in Ho Chi Minh City.
Last year, Vietnam issued a circular that required all cigarette packs to feature graphic health warnings on half the surface of the pack.
It stipulated a transition provision from 6-10 months starting on May 1, 2013. Compliance deadlines were set at last November for soft packs and March, 2014 for hard packs.
However, enforcement of the new labeling laws has proven porous and the government has been caught dragging its feet on implementing aggressive new tobacco taxes at a time when a pack still costs less than a dollar.
Truong Minh Tuan, director of a private construction company in HCMC, said people can easily buy warning-free packs on the street.
“Just ask the seller for an ‘old’ pack. Every cigarette cart on the street has them,” he said, guessing that the unmarked packs were made during previous production batches.
“They are printed in Vietnamese and obviously aren't smuggled products,” he said.
‘Super-profits’ prompt violations
Le Viet Hoa, project manager of the NGO HealthBridge Vietnam, suspects that some companies are illegally producing cigarette packs that lack the required warning images.
She more or less confirmed rumors that cigarette companies produced a surplus of image-free packaging during the transition period.
Given the enormous profits at stake, tobacco companies are deliberately flouting the laws because there is no one to punish them" -- "
“The cigarette companies have clearly violated regulations on the production and trade of cigarettes,” she told Thanh Nien News in an email inquiring about rumors that cigarette manufacturers had stockpiled label-free packaging during the year-long grace period.
Some cigarette companies continue to produce the old warning-free packs long after the transition period ended, which Hoa called a clear violation of the circular on the inclusion of graphic imagery on cigarette warning labels.
“The enforcement of Vietnam's laws, in general, and the Law on Prevention and Control of Tobacco Harms in particular, are currently very weak. Given the enormous profits at stake, tobacco companies are deliberately flouting the laws because there is no one to punish them.”
“I think if the media makes a big fuss about this issue, tobacco companies will have to stop,” she said.
Vietnam bends over backwards for big tobacco
Given the wide availability of warning-free cigarette packs, many have criticized an excessively long transition period (from May, 2013 – March, 2014) as having given cigarette firms too much room to maneuver.
Jorge Alday, a spokesperson for the New York-based World Lung Foundation, said tobacco companies know that graphic labeling works to inform smokers of the real dangers of tobacco.
“As such they have an incentive to delay or stop the release of packs with new warnings,” he told Thanh Nien News.
In some countries, tobacco companies have flooded the market with older packs under the auspices of ‘clearing inventory’ when, in reality, they were just trying to get more product out before the new labeling laws came into effect, he said.
According to Alday, it is not unusual for governments to give companies time to adjust their manufacturing and packaging processes, but the time allocated in Vietnam was “more than enough”.
Many people also complained that a long transition period offered smokers enough time to find ways around buying the new packs.
Nguyen Tuyet Linh, the owner of a rice shop in HCMC’s District 1, said her husband significantly cut down on his smoking after the new graphic warning packs hit the market last year.
“At the beginning, he tried to avoid buying the new packs. Now he seems used to them, although he smokes less,” she said, adding that she just wanted him to quit.
Tax: increase or not to increase
According to the 2010 Global Adult Tobacco Survey, Vietnam has one of the world's 15 largest population of smokers; 15.3 million people here, above the age of 15, smoke.
Smoking kills about 40,000 people in Vietnam every year and the World Health Organization warned that the number could increased to 70,000 in 2030 without strong preventative measures.
In May, a proposal to increase the tobacco tax was once again prepared by the Ministry of Health.
The ministry proposed increasing the special consumption tax on tobacco from the current 65 percent to 105 percent in 2015 to discourage smoking.
Under the proposed hike, the tax would reach 145 percent in 2018 and 155 percent in 2018, the ministry said in a statement.
This patient smokes at the Ho Chi Minh City's Trung Vuong Hospital. Photo: Doc Lap
The health ministry estimated that the tax would drop the proportion of male smokers in Vietnam from 47.4 percent (recorded in 2011) to 39 percent in 2020.
Meanwhile, state revenues generated by the tobacco tax are expected to soar to VND9 trillion in 2015 and VND24.1 trillion by 2018.
Many experts, citing Thailand as an example, have urged Vietnam to implement a more aggressive tobacco tax to simultaneously cut the socio-economic damages created by widespread smoking and increase revenue flow to the state exchequer.
Government’s decisive role
Phan Thi Hai, spokeswoman of the Vietnam Steering Committee on Smoking and Health (VINACOSH), said that apart from enforcing graphic label requirements, Vietnam should enlist a host of comprehensive preventative measures to discourage smoking.
According to VINACOSH, taxes account for 41.6 percent of cigarette retail prices in Vietnam, a very low proportion compared to other countries in the region and the world.
Vietnam should also strictly enforce its existing ban on smoking in public places, aggressively battle cigarette smuggling and raise public awareness about the dangers of smoking.
Meanwhile, Alday of the World Lung Foundation stressed the decisive role Vietnam's government could play in discouraging smoking.
“The tobacco industry is a powerful actor in Vietnam as in other countries," he said. "But the government is stronger."