A question of coughs and coffers

By Suchada Tupchai

The governmentís stance on the prohibition of displaying cigarettes at sales outlets, made enforceable on September 24, is clear enough. It is also laudable, particularly when it comes to discouraging young people from smoking. Professor Dr Somsri Phaosawat, president of Academic Networks, in a report compiling international research on the subject, states firmly that cigarette advertising at point-of-sale outlets is the main factor that entices young people to start smoking.

Display of even a single cigarette packet is illegal, infringing Section 8 of the 1998 Tobacco Control Act. This, too, is clear enough.

But what is also clear is that the Ministry of Finance collected 36.326 billion baht tax on cigarette sales in 2004, while lung cancer, heart disease and other smoking-related illnesses and their treatment costs the government 46 billion baht annually. This latter figure is a conservative one, with some authorities saying it could be as high as 75 billion baht annually if all 25 smoking related diseases are taken into account.

The government obviously has to do something to reduce the number of smokers because otherwise the figures will increase and this will be one of the key reasons why the government will not be able to meet the costs of its 30 baht medical-treatment-for-all-project.

There have been anti-smoking campaigns for years, but when viewed realistically they have not worked. The talk of worry for public health and the dangers of smoking mean nothing while at the same time cigarettes are still being manufactured. Smoking remains popular in face of the campaigns and the number of smokers has not fallen. The number of young smokers is increasing and one should not discount the perceived glamour of indulging in a practice that is frowned upon by authority.

One of the main obstacles is the lack of enforcement of the 1998 Tobacco Control Act and the 1998 Non Smoker Health Protection Act which cover smoking in public places, selling to the under aged, sales promotions, the manufacture and sale of cigarette look-alike products, failure to disclose cigarette content mixture, etc. All these factors encourage smoking and do not help efforts to reduce it.

One thing that would solve the problem permanently would be to shut down the tobacco production factories. Such an act would prove that the government is serious in promoting a tobacco free society. But what would result? What would the government have to do next concerning strict tobacco import measures, distribution, point-of-sale, high tax barriers and declaring tobacco a dangerous drug?

It depends on whether the government is brave enough to take such a radical step. If the answer is no, we will continue to see this confusing behavior, with the government on the one hand trying to create a non-smoking society to cut down on medical costs, while on the other hand supporting the tobacco industry to help fill the nationís coffers.

Perhaps it is na๏ve to suggest that an outright ban would be cheaper in the long-run, but it certainly is a thought.