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Vietnam: Zero Duties for Rice, Tobacco–zero-duties-for-rice–tobacco/

Vietnam agreed yesterday to waive all duties on a total of 300,000 tons of rice and 3,000 tons of dried tobacco exported annually from Cambodia to the country, according to a bilateral agreement signed at two back-to-back summits to promote economic cooperation in the Greater Mekong Sub-region.

The bilateral trade enhancement agreement between Vietnam and Cambodia, signed in Hanoi by Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak and the Vietnamese Minister of Industry and Trade Tran Tuan Anh at the 7th Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy Summit (ACMECS 7) and the 8th Cambodia-Laos-Myanmar-Vietnam Cooperation Summit (CLMV 8), also gives special preferential treatment to 39 export items from Cambodia and 29 items from Vietnam.

Soeng Sophary, spokesperson at Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce, told Khmer Times yesterday that the bilateral agreement between Cambodia and Vietnam had been signed several years ago, but had expired recently.

“So both parties took advantage of these summits to renew it, and at the same time add new items that would be given tariff-free status by two countries,” said Ms. Sophary.

Ms. Sophary, however, clarified that this was the first agreement between Cambodia and Vietnam that included Cambodian rice exports to the neighboring country.

“These rice exports will have to pass through customs checkpoints at the border to crackdown on smuggling and ‘unofficial exports’,” she said.

Ms. Sophary stressed that since Vietnam is one of the leading rice producers in the Mekong region, Cambodia was not expected to export too much rice to its neighbor. However, she said, the agreement was more focused on strengthening diplomatic ties through trade.

“The bilateral agreement has also paved the way for the private sector to be greater involved in trade between Cambodia and Vietnam,” she said.

“Vietnam may not have premium rice like Cambodia, so somehow they need those kinds of premium rice. This is where the private sector can fill in the gap.”

According to the Viet Nam News’ website, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addressed the opening of the summits.

He reportedly said the CLMV and ACMECS have contributed to important achievements, such as promoting the socio-economic development of each country, helping with the establishment of the Asean Community and aiding peace and stability in the region.

“We are presented with excellent opportunities for the development of CLMV and ACMECS. At these summits, we will discuss new landscapes and together work out ways and means to build dynamic and competitive economies with sustainable and inclusive growth,” Mr. Xuan Phuc was quoted as saying by Viet Nam News.

Graphic warnings on tobacco packs ready

The Association of Tobacco Industry of Cambodia announced on Saturday that new cigarette packaging, including graphic images and warning text, was ready – as required by the government as of July 23 – but may not hit the market for a few months as businesses get rid of old stock.

According to a law adopted on October 22, 2015, and clarified by the Ministry of Health on February 15, graphic photos need to cover 50 per cent of the cigarette packets, and a written message in Khmer must cover another 5 per cent.

Fines are 4 million riel (about $1,000) for noncomplying tobacco companies; 2 million riel for distributors and wholesalers; and 10,000 riel for retailers.

Mom Kong, executive director of the Cambodia Movement for Health, said the cigarette companies should roll out the new packaging immediately.

“The government gave the companies nine months to prepare. That is a very long time, and I don’t think the companies need to take any more time,” Kong said.

“In Laos, the government gave companies four months, other countries had six or seven. So nine months for Cambodia is enough for companies to sell their products with the new warnings.”

“I will see if there are no new warning packages on the market by the end of July,” Kong said. “We will be a watchdog on the market and monitor how the companies obey, for Cambodians’ health.”

Health Ministry Will Levy Fines for Public Smoking Offenders

People smoking tobacco in offices, restaurants and other public spaces will have to indulge their habit in clearly demarcated smoking areas or both the smoker and establishment owner will face fines, the Ministry of Health announced.

Following the government’s approval in March of a sub-decree banning smoking in public places—including fines of 20,000 riel (about $5) for offending smokers and 50,000 riel (about $12.50) for establishment owners—the ministry released a statement last week laying out specific implementation plans.

“The ban sign has to be written in both Khmer and English saying ‘No Smoking,’ along with the picture of a cigarette inside a red circle, with a red diagonal line across,” said the statement, dated Wednesday.

Health Ministry spokesman Ly Sovann said on Sunday that the release of the statement signaled the end of a short “probation period” following the sub-decree’s approval and the start of a system to fine those found to be violating the Law on Tobacco Control.

Mr. Sovann said that the ministry’s own judicial police officers would be tasked with enforcement.

Sok Sokun, director of the Phnom Penh municipal health department, said the ministry has multiple police units tasked with enforcing health laws, but that so far the new tobacco unit had not issued any fines.

“So far, no restaurant owners or a single individual have been fined. The ministry is still in the process of informing people about it,” he said.

Mark Schwisow, country director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, which works to reduce tobacco use in the country, said the main challenge would be notifying authorities and business owners outside of Phnom Penh of the new requirements.

“Your local police officers aren’t going to go out and enforce these rules,” he said. “It will take shopkeepers to know of them and decide to act.”

According to the World Health Organization, smoking is among the leading causes of death in Cambodia, with 10,000 people killed each year by smoking-related diseases.

Tobacco company’s tactics scrutinised

Cambodia’s top-selling cigarette firm achieved dominance by courting senior political figures and vigorously opposing public health legislation, according to a study published this month in medical journal Global Public Health.

Twenty years after moving into Cambodia, British American Tobacco Cambodia (BATC) controls 40.3 per cent of the cigarette market.

Through analysis of internal industry documents available through the global Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, by Drs Ross MacKenzie and Jeff Collin examined the strategies employed by BATC to reach the top spot.

The documents from the mid-1990s revealed a strategy focused on “handling government officials both at provincial and national levels on a variety of topics”.

Mac-Kenzie and Collin found that BATC’s greatest asset in managing those relationships was its chairman, Oknha Kong Triv, whose real value, they assert, was “his connections to the inner circle around the CPP”.

Related strategies involved funding the Hun Sen Forestation Nursery and BAT’s regional marketing director thanking the prime minister for his “vision, wisdom and leadership”.

MacKenzie and Collin believe BATC’s lobbying paid off. The government, they report, gave the company generous preferential tax treatment and a willing ear to listen to its concerns on policy matters.

Cambodia’s 2005 ratification of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control should have made further exploitation of those relationships impossible.

Article 5.3 of the convention requires signatory nations to protect health policy from the “vested interests of the tobacco industry”.

Yet in a 2010 conversation with the Post, Kun Lim, BATC’s head of corporate and regulatory affairs, praised government officials for their “commitment to listen” and a 2007 internal document spoke of the “culture of partnership” between the company and state.

Yel Daravuth, who heads the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative in Cambodia, believes that while Article 5.3 has been adopted by Cambodia on paper, there is a lack of proper guidelines.

“It’s very important [to have specific guidelines] because it will tell the government what they should do, what they should not do and how restricted they are. If they want to [meet with tobacco executives], they have to be very transparent,” said Daravuth.

Cambodia Movement for Health executive director Dr Kong Mom said in an email the tobacco industry persistently attempts to railroad policies that would curb their position.

“Recently, the tobacco industry in Cambodia established an alliance called Association of Tobacco Industry of Cambodia aiming at interfering in the development and implementation of the law on tobacco control and its regulations. It is not the matter of which company is more or less aggressive than other companies, but they work together to protect their vested interest,” Mom wrote.

The Ministry of Health’s vice chief of tobacco and health, Kong Sam An, could not be reached yesterday. A BATC representative hung up when a Post reporter called for comment.

Big Tobacco Shaped Smoking Laws, Policies

In 2008, British American Tobacco (BAT) was awarded its third straight “Gold Medal” from Prime Minister Hun Sen in recognition of good corporate stewardship, according to the company’s July newsletter.

As a “corporate citizen of Cambodia, we consider it our responsibility to assist in the development of this country and the people,” BAT’s Asia-Pacific marketing director Dale Mclean was quoted as saying in the newsletter. Mr. Mclean went on to express his “deep gratitude” to Mr. Hun Sen for “his vision, wisdom and leadership.”

It might have seemed an odd moment for the largest cigarette maker by market share in a country where the World Health Organization estimates 10,000 people die of tobacco-related causes every year. But the goodwill between BAT and the Cambodian government was by then nothing new, according to a new paper by a pair of foreign academics.

Since the mid-1990s, BAT aggressively sought to establish close connections with those at the highest levels of government in order to shape industry-friendly tobacco taxes and regulations, write Ross MacKenzie, a health sciences lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, and Jeff Colin, a professor of global health policy at the University of Edinburgh, in the latest issue of the journal Global Public Health.

Citing internal industry documents made public through litigation, the company’s newsletter, news articles and marketing reports, the authors conclude that connections with political elites were “both widely acknowledged and beyond public criticism,” allowing BAT to “dilute tobacco control regulation.”

British American Tobacco did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Wednesday.

The company’s influence may help explain why the Cambodian government has taken so long to implement a series of regulations on advertising, taxation and other smoking-related measures it ratified in 2005 as a signatory to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

As early as 1995, BAT’s “Indo-China” plan noted the importance of “handling government officials at both the provincial and national levels.”

“It is imperative that anti-tobacco marketing restrictions are pre-empted by a balanced counter view presented at the highest levels in government and the media,” BAT wrote.

Seeking to position itself as the voice of calm in an unruly industry, BAT repeatedly touted its role in supporting economic development while simultaneously courting key government officials through its Cambodian partners, the paper says.

By partnering with businessman Kong Triv’s Cambodia Tobacco Company and courting fellow tycoon Kok An—both of whom have served in the Senate—the authors say BAT gained conduits to advocate for its policy position at Cambodia’s Government-Private Sector Forum.

According to the website of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Forum’s industry-specific working groups “provided a platform for business representatives to offer expertise on a range of policy and regulatory reforms” to government officials.

Statements from the company suggest its tactics have paid dividends.

In an August 2007 newsletter, BAT general manager Arend Ng praised the company’s success in lowering a proposed excise tax as “a shining example of what can be achieved when industry and Government work together.”

The group also aggressively lobbied members of a Health Ministry group charged with making recommendations about a 2010 law that ultimately banned tobacco ads in certain settings. At the time, Kun Lim, head of BAT’s corporate and regulatory affairs, praised officials in an interview with The Phnom Penh Post for their “commitment to listen” and to ensure that “no unnecessary burdens are placed on business.”

Another prong of BAT’s strategies entailed corporate social responsibility programs, including supporting family tobacco growers, hosting workshops on child labor and supporting government reforestation with four large nurseries, two of which were named after Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Many of these overtures appear to be in direct violation of Article 5.3 of WHO’s Tobacco Control framework, which states that “parties shall act to protect [tobacco] policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.”

Judith Mackay, a senior adviser with health advocacy group Vital Strategies, said on Wednesday that BAT’s strategies were typical in the developing world.

“Their objective is to bolster their global revenues and profits by winning customers, especially in the low and middle income markets because smoking rates have declined in many high-income countries where consumers have been educated about the harms of tobacco,” she said in an email.

Mark Schwisow, country director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, agreed.

“The trend internationally is for policymakers to make the law as weak as possible,” he said.

Spokesmen for the ministries of commerce and finance declined to comment on the findings published by Mr. MacKenzie and Mr. Colin.

Given’s BAT’s recent history of engaging with authoritarian governments in Uzbekistan, Burma, and even North Korea, the academics say they doubt the company will back down from its engagement with the Cambodian government.

“BAT’s perceptibly close relationship with the Cambodian government raises…questions regarding corporate operations in countries where national governments engage in large-scale human rights violations,” they write.

Parties Unite to Pass Strict Tobacco Control Law

The ruling CPP and opposition CNRP made a rare show of fraternity Wednesday morning in unanimously passing the country’s first tobacco control law—which bans sales to minors, smoking in public and most advertising—in a bid to combat related illnesses.

Passed with 89 votes at the National Assembly, the Law on Tobacco Product Control has been years in the making and imposes fines—and in some cases prison time—on violators.

More than 9,000 Cambodians die every year due to smoking-related illnesses, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). A 2014 study commissioned by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in the U.S. found that more than 40 percent of Cambodian men were daily smokers, that the habit contributed to 7 percent of all premature deaths in the country and could kill 1.2 million people over the next 30 to 50 years if no additional measures were taken.

A sub-decree banned some forms of tobacco product advertising in 2011. But CNRP lawmaker Ke Sovannaroth, who heads the Assembly’s health commission, said after Wednesday’s legislative session that the new law would let the government mete out penalties.

“In some cases, punishment will be imposed if tobacco distributors know that the person they are selling tobacco to is under 18 years old,” she said.

The law states: “Any act of selling or distributing all types of tobacco products to persons aged under 18 years or to pregnant women whose pregnancy is obvious or is realized must be punished with six days to one month in prison and a fine of 100,000 riel [about $25] to 1 million riel [about $250].”

The law also bans almost all forms of tobacco product advertising and imposes a fine of up to $10,000 on violators. Tobacco product producers who refuse to reveal the chemical composition of their wares during inspections will be fined up to $5,000, double if they refuse a second time.

The law does not set any parameters for setting or adjusting the tax on tobacco products. During the hour-and-a-half discussion that preceded the vote, Health Minister Mam Bunheng said the law merely states that taxes will “be in line with the circumstances.”

CNRP lawmaker Khy Vandeth said the current tax on cigarettes, at 22.26 percent, was far too low and suggested raising it in stages up to 70 percent.

“If we can raise the tax rate to a high level, we can prevent [consumption] very much,” he said.

Yel Daravuth, technical officer for the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative in Cambodia, said he was happy to see the Assembly finally pass the law, which he had helped with.

He said it hit all the major points of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Cambodia has signed on to: advertising bans, warning labels on packaging, increased taxes, and smoke-free areas.

“These four areas, if you implement them, will encourage people not to smoke, and for smokers, it will encourage them to quit, so this is good,” Mr. Daravuth said.

“The next step is to work on enforcement,” he said, adding that the tobacco industry “always looks for a loophole” and that sub-decrees addressing enforcement and other details left out of the law were in the works.