Vietnam sizes up Big Tobacco

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Health advocates counsel constant vigilance against powerful industry


A graphic image warning label reading "Cigarettes Cause Mouth Diseases" on a Peter Jackson cigarette box in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. A majority of Vietnamese lawmakers strongly supported the printing of graphic warnings, raising tobacco taxes, and other tough measures as they debated a draft law aimed at upping the strictures on smoking.

Jai Whitehead had just recovered from a bout of flu and was more sensitive to cigarette smoke than usual.

On Wednesday night, he chose an Indian restaurant without any customers so he could have dinner in a smoke-free environment, only to see a party of four come in later and promptly light up.

"Nobody asks you if it's OK if they pollute your air and maybe spoil your meal, especially in a situation where you are there first and cannot leave," said Whitehead, an Aussie expat living in Ho Chi Minh City. "Fortunately I had almost finished, so I hastily scoffed the last, paid and was out of there, grunting my displeasure as I went."

Whitehead, whose stepfather died of pneumonia with complications from smoking, said such annoyances happened to him all the time in restaurants, and everywhere else for that matter, in Vietnam.

"Looking for eating places with nobody in them, and scurrying out to escape toxic fumes is not something I want to do by choice"¦ When foreigners come to Vietnam they see no laws regarding smoking, see ashtrays in restaurants etc., and light up," Whitehead said.

"They would never do this back at home. This is a good example of why we [Vietnam] need laws."

Actually, a Vietnamese government decree effective January 1, 2010 prohibits smoking indoors in public places, but the regulations are never enforced, by most accounts.

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

Smoking caused around 40,000 deaths in Vietnam in 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates. This figure could surge to 70,000 by the end of 2030 if drastic measures are not taken, the UN agency warns.

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The National Assembly, Vietnam's legislative body, is pushing for a draft law aimed at upping the strictures on smoking. A majority of the lawmakers strongly supported the printing of graphic warnings, raising tobacco taxes, and other tough measures as they debated the bill at a plenary session on Wednesday (November 16).

"Graphic warnings must occupy at least 50 percent of the cigarette packs," said Nguyen Thu Anh, a lawmaker whose constituents are in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong. "Many other countries have implemented this legislation and Vietnam should not be immune from that."

Lawmakers have also backed a provision that will raise Vietnam's tobacco taxes.

"Taxes need to be increased to a certain threshold that makes tobacco a luxury item in Vietnam," said Bui Manh Hung, a deputy from the southern province of Binh Phuoc.

Currently, cigarettes are taxed at 32 percent in Vietnam. With a tax increase of 20 percent, retail prices would increase by about 10 percent and government tax revenues will go up by VND1.9 trillion (US$101.7 million), the WHO estimates.

Remain vigilant

Health advocates have hailed the Vietnamese parliament for the "important and courageous" move in defending public health. But they also warn Vietnam not to relax vigilance against the tentacles of influence the tobacco industry has been using to reach every level of policy making.

They allege that the tobacco industry has been successful in thwarting the passage of a strong tobacco control law in Vietnam and the fact that the number-one tobacco brand, Vinataba, is owned by the government itself, enables this process.

"The tobacco industry is a powerful lobby," said lawmaker Nguyen Van Tien from the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang.

The bill, which has been drafted since 2008 and is set to be passed next May, is also looking to ban all forms of sponsorship by tobacco companies but does not completely prohibit philanthropic activities.

Lawmakers have slammed this loophole, saying it would help the tobacco firms circumvent the law.

"We need a complete ban on any kind of sponsorship to prevent the tobacco companies from using their charity work to promote their products," said lawmaker Nguyen Thanh Thao of Dong Thap Province.

But health advocates are most worried that the tobacco industry will not easily "let nature take its course."

"The industry has reacted forcefully against tobacco control policies in numerous other countries, most recently against plain cigarette packs in Australia and Phillip Morris taking legal action again the government of Uruguay for its stringent tobacco control policies," said Mego Lien, a spokesperson for the New York-based NGO World Lung Foundation.

"Such examples show that the industry is willing to threaten and enact costly litigation in international trade law to protect its ability to sell and market deadly products," Lien said. "Lawmakers and public health advocates should be prepared in Vietnam and outside its borders for counter-tactics such as delays, lobbying and litigation."

Lien stressed the importance of strong political will that she said was crucial for protecting the health of Vietnamese people.

"A powerful [tobacco] industry response also indicates that they are concerned that these policies will work," she said.

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