Did Big Tobacco subvert new Vietnam tobacco law?

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Vietnam passes complete ban on public smoking, but major loopholes could mean business as usual for the tobacco industry

 
A woman sells cigarettes in downtown Hanoi on June 19. Photo: AFP

Vietnam's first tobacco control laws, passed this week, are set to make life a bit more difficult for smokers, but several lawmakers fear the powerful tobacco industry could exploit a loophole that will allow them to skirt heavy restrictions on advertising.

Health experts warn that the government should brace itself for a major push back from Big Tobacco, which rarely gives in to such legislation without a fight.

An overwhelming majority of National Assembly deputies Monday (June 18) voted for a law prohibiting smoking in workplaces and public places including restaurants.

The law, which is set to take effect in May 2013, bans individuals under the age of 18 from buying cigarettes and prohibits tobacco sales within 100 meters of child-care facilities, schools, and hospitals.

It also mandates that graphic warning labels cover at least 50 percent of cigarette packs.

At present, the warnings are text only and cover just 30 percent of the pack, meeting the minimum requirements of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to which Vietnam is a signatory.

A government decree, effective January 2010, prohibits smoking indoors in public places, but the regulations have never been enforced.

Anti-smoking groups welcomed the new law.

"This is a big win for public health," Anuradha Khanal, the Vietnam country coordinator for the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said.

""¦ The new law will help protect the 71 percent of Vietnamese children ages 13-15 who are exposed to secondhand smoke in public places and reduce the deadly toll of tobacco, which kills more than 40,000 Vietnamese each year," she told Vietweek.

Smoking could cause up to 70,000 deaths in Vietnam in 2030 if drastic measures are not taken, the World Health Organization has warned.

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The Global Adult Tobacco Survey 2010, an international standard for systematically monitoring adult tobacco use and tracking key tobacco control indicators, found that around 15.3 million people actively smoked in Vietnam and an estimated 46.8 million were exposed to secondhand smoke.

But health advocates warned that the tobacco lobby has done everything possible to undermine public health efforts in other countries and Vietnam would be no exception.

The National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, began drafting the law in 2008. Pham Hoang Anh, the country director of HealthBridge Canada (an international NGO) blamed the aggressive tobacco industry lobby for attempting to thwart the passage of the bill and influencing its drafting process behind closed doors.

"The people who drafted the law may have come under huge pressure so its final full text was not as strong as expected," Anh said.

Sandra Mullin, a spokeswoman for the New York-based NGO World Lung Foundation, said: "The tobacco industry is a powerful lobby, especially in Vietnam where the number one tobacco brand, Vinataba, is owned by the government itself."

The industry has reacted forcefully against tobacco control policies in the past. Australia's recent efforts to enact the world's first legislation requiring cigarettes to be sold in generic packages and Uruguay's stringent tobacco control policies both drew lawsuits from Phillip Morris, she said.

Such examples show that the industry is willing to threaten and enter into costly litigation to protect its ability to market its products, but "a powerful industry response also indicates that they are concerned that these policies will work," she added.

Fertile ground untouched

The new law also makes it illegal to advertise or promote tobacco products. But some lawmakers lambasted a loophole that could allow tobacco advertising to continue unhindered.

Various studies have found that mock cigarette packs and tobacco-related logos and slogans are pasted all over small shops in Vietnam, but technically they are just "displays" not advertisements. The new law allows the display of one cigarette pack at tobacco shops and in vendors' pushcarts.

"Tobacco companies could cash in on these loopholes to promote their brands," Dieu K'Ru, a legislator from the Central Highlands province of Dak Nong, said during a debate before the house passed the law.

"If we allow the display of one pack for each brand, a store could display dozens of brands.

"Given that Vietnam has hundreds of tobacco brands, hundreds of thousands of tobacco ads will mushroom across the country."

A two-year study by the Hanoi School of Public Health found that between November 2009 and April 2011 almost all of the 1,530 points of sale surveyed in 10 provinces and cities had tobacco advertising or promotion activities in various forms.

The surveyed sites included tobacco and coffee shops, bars, karaoke parlors, supermarkets, pushcarts, restaurants, and grocery stores, according to the findings, which were released in March.

"The law will lack teeth if it has such loopholes," Pham Duc Chau, a legislator from the north-central province of Quang Tri, warned.

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