Big Tobacco Sets Its Sights On Myanmar As Country Faces Internal Conflict Over Business Versus Health

 @SophieXSong
on November 20 2013 10:20 AM
Myanmar Smoker
A punk smokes a cigarette at a punk music show in Yangon December 31, 2012. REUTERS/Minzayar

Multinational tobacco companies looking for new markets are expanding into Myanmar, jeopardizing the nation’s health and the rights of some of its poorest citizens.

Myanmar certainly represents a good opportunity for cigarette companies, as between one-third and one-half of its 60 million people consume tobacco in some form – most get their fix by chewing betel leaves and smoking cheroots. Only those living in major cities, 9.2 percent of smokers, have access to filtered cigarettes, Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday.

But there is a conflict of interest within the government. Foreign tobacco firms are keen to boost sales by expanding into the unexplored frontier of Myanmar, and the trade ministry is keen to lure millions of dollars in potential foreign investment, even as the health ministry is trying to implement measures to curb smoking, said Bungon Rithiphakdee, the director of the Southeast Asian Tobacco Control Alliance.

By the estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO), one in five deaths in Myanmar is attributed to smoking, and the cancer ward at Yangon’s main hospital is usually crowded, but cigarette sales are still projected to grow at between 2 percent to 3 percent a year for the next four years, said Shane MacGuill, a tobacco industry analyst at research firm Euromonitor.

Some foreign firms have already moved in. China’s largest and the world’s fifth-largest tobacco manufacturer, the HongyunHonghe Tobacco Group, and its local partner have a factory that can produce 3 billion cigarettes a year, while the world’s second-largest cigarette company, British American Tobacco PLC (LON:BATS), plans to invest $50 million over the next five years. Japan Tobacco International, the third-largest cigarette company in the world, said it is setting up business in Myanmar, Al Jazeera reported.

Unfortunately, Myanmar’s legislation for the tobacco industry is threadbare and poorly enforced, far behind the pace of foreign expansion into the nation. Even though it ratified the WHO Framework Convention against Tobacco Control in 2004, Myanmar has failed to implement some of the WHO guidelines, including health warnings on cigarette packs and a 65 percent tax levy.

"Many countries don't have trade lawyers, financial people to challenge [these multinationals],” said Judith Mackay, a senior adviser to the World Lung Foundation, which works to help eradicate diseases such as tuberculosis. “In 10 years Myanmar will get up to speed [with its legislation enforcement], but right now it is very vulnerable."

It’s also not just the citizens’ health that multinationals will be damaging. Many farmers have had their lands taken from them to make way for foreign business interests in the past, said Mark Farmener, director of the Burma Campaign, an organization that lobbied to get British American Tobacco out of Myanmar. Some foreign tobacco makers are looking to grow tobacco in Myanmar to export to other Asian countries, which could mean the loss of agricultural and ancestral land for some of Myanmar’s poorest.

Farmener said that these multinationals will bring a raft of social and human rights issues such as land grabs and poor treatment of workers, according to Al Jazeera.

"People in Burma need jobs but they don't need cancer," Farmener added. "It's good to see investment that benefits them, but not investment that's going to kill them." 

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