Cant kick the habit

Updated: Sep 28 2007, 04:05am hrs
Around 700 million Asians, mostly men, cannot get through the day without puffing on a cigarette. The habit is thought to kill around 2.3 million Asians every year, almost half smokings global victims. Cases of cancer and other tobacco-related diseases are rising sharply. But health ministries are taking tougher action against smoking. Thailand, which banned it in most public buildings in 2003, is holding hearings on a plan to extend the ban to all places of entertainment. Chinas press said this month that cigarette makers would be told to put larger health warnings on their packets, including images of skulls, blackened teeth or diseased lungs.

Cigarette consumption in China soared between 1970 and 1990 but has fallen slightly since. There, as elsewhere in Asia, smoking among men is far more common than in the West. The worry, says Burke Fishburn of the World Health Organisation (WHO), is that Asia will follow the Western trend, with more women taking up smoking as men quit. In Vietnam, for example, cigarettes are being peddled to urban women as a sophisticated pursuit.

Western tobacco firms, their home markets shrinking, have turned their attention to developing Asia, drawing fire from anti-smoking groups. But, says Mr Fishburn, a bigger worry is the ambitious plan by Chinas huge state tobacco monopoly to become a big exporter of cut-price smokes to the rest of the region. Thailand, while extending its smoking bans, also plans a giant new factory for its state tobacco firm.

Almost all Asian countries have signed the WHOs tobacco-control treaty, committing themselves to restricting the marketing of cigarettes, curbing smoking in public and helping smokers to quit. But they will struggle to change entrenched social customs. In China, cigarettes are a social lubricant, pressed on guests, whose attempts to decline them are often ignored, or on those from whom one wants a favour, whose acceptance of the cigarette implies the favour will be granted. Tobacco firms are wriggling around the new restrictions. In India, most outdoor advertising has been taken down since it was banned in 2003 but firms are spending heavily on in-store promotional displays, which are still allowed.

Another big obstacle is that Asias governments are addicted to the huge revenues they earn from both tobacco taxes and the profits of state tobacco firms. Though Indonesias government is promising to cap cigarette output by 2010, it is the only one in Asia not to have signed the WHOs treaty, claiming it cannot afford to. Tobacco taxes provide about 10% of government revenue and the industry is said to support some seven million people. Chinese officials also worry about the consequences of curbing the tobacco producers.

However, both nicotine-addled countries may be wrong. In each, tobacco taxes are unusually low by world standards. Studies by the World Bank and others suggest that, though raising tobacco taxes succeeds in cutting smoking, it still increases government revenues. Tougher curbs on cigarette smuggling can have the same effect. Tobacco farmers could switch to growing, say, oilseeds, for which demand is booming. And Asias tobacco firms, in the short term, says Mr Fishburn, need fear neither higher taxes nor tougher advertising bans: they have so much scope to improve their efficiency that they could boost profits even in a shrinking market.

The Economist Newspaper Limited 2007