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Big Tobacco conquers its new frontier

26 Aug, 2012 03:00 AM

It was tipped to send tobacco companies’ profits tumbling. The plain cigarette packaging High Court victory was hailed by the Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, as an anti-smoking coup with global implications. Documentary: Sex, Lies and Cigarettes – How Big Tobacco is targeting kids in developing countries

But the latest blow against cigarettes in countries like Australia needs some perspective: health experts warn that while the industry is beginning to lose its grip in developed nations, there is a humanitarian disaster looming in poorer countries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific.

The region is now the world’s biggest tobacco market, with 6 million new smokers recruited in 2009 and another 30 million expected to be added by 2014, based on industry estimates. The World Health Organisation calculates that of the 6 million people who will die from tobacco use this year, 80 per cent will be in the developing world.

Mike Daube, a WHO tobacco adviser and president of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health, has accused cigarette companies of perpetrating a ”tobacco holocaust” in poor nations. ”This is an industry absolutely without a moral radar. They are just wilfully imposing a pandemic on developing countries, and they’ve known for more than 60 years that smoking kills. This is going to cause far more deaths than any wars we’ve ever seen.”

Last week, The Lancet reported ”alarming patterns” of tobacco use in developing countries, where consumption is growing by more than 3 per cent a year. At a time when Australia’s adult smoking rate – one of the lowest in the world at 16.6 per cent – continues to drop by about 1 per cent a year, in parts of Asia as many as two-thirds of men are smokers, and women and children are increasingly taking up the habit.

In China, schools are sponsored by the state-run tobacco industry. The biggest commercial player, Philip Morris, has seen net revenue soar in the Asia-Pacific region from $5.6 billion in 2007 to nearly $11 billion last year, and the company has set up production bases in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. In a statement to The Sun-Herald, a Switzerland-based media adviser for Philip Morris International outlined the market’s potential: ”A home to over half of the world’s population, the Asian region is very important for any global consumer goods company. In terms of tobacco products, tobacco has been used in Asia for centuries and most countries have long-standing local traditions.”

British American Tobacco’s revenue has grown from $1.8 billion to $4.2 billion over the same period in the region. A spokesman, Scott McIntyre, was unapologetic, saying the company has had a presence in the developing world since the early 1900s.

”Just because people live in a developing nation,” he said, ”does that mean they have less of a right to choose what legal products they purchase than Australians? Or do Australian health experts believe they should have control over individuals in other countries. We believe education on the health risks of smoking is the most effective way for governments to reduce smoking rates.”

In China the government-owned China Tobacco Corp generates taxes and profits of about $9 billion a month. China has 330 million smokers. In Indonesia, where the average age to start smoking is under 10, there are 65 million.

Professor Daube said large markets, low taxes, cheap labour, corruption, poor literacy and lax advertising rules made the Asia-Pacific region attractive to tobacco companies. Huge populations with a large youth base were also part of the appeal. ”There’s massive evidence from industry documents that they see developing countries as essentially their saviour market.”

While the traditionally conservative culture in many Asian countries has kept smoking rates very low for women (between 3 and 5 per cent), increased economic and social equality are turning the trend. Aggressive marketing is driving the shift, said Mary Assunta, director of the international tobacco control project at Cancer Council Australia, who has worked in the Asia-Pacific region for 20 years. ”In Indonesia you see cigarette packs in the market that look like lipstick cases and they sell skinny cigarette sticks so they can fit into the purse of young girls very easily,” Dr Assunta said.

The industry denies it targets children, despite cigarette companies sponsoring concerts, sporting events and even schools in some Asian countries. Philip Morris said in its statement it was an ”advocate” for laws banning cigarette sales to minors. But an advertisement last year for Sampoerna, an Indonesian tobacco company bought by Philip Morris in 2005, ran the slogan: ”Dying is better than leaving a friend; Sampoerna is a cool friend.”

Tobacco companies make no secret of their hopes in Asia. Next month Jakarta will host the World Tobacco Asia 2012. Its website boasts that Indonesia is a ”tobacco-friendly market” because it has no smoking bans or restrictions. ”Ensure you take advantage of this growing market,” it says.

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