by Marwaan Macan-Markar
(IPS) BANGKOK -- Southeast Asia's march to create a regional free trade area by 2018 is causing heartburn among public health experts, given that this push to end tariff barriers could open the doors for an avalanche of cigarettes to flood local stores.
On August 20, the World Health Organization (WHO) appealed to Southeast Asian governments to "weigh the public health risks of liberalization of the tobacco trade under the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Free Trade Agreement (AFTA)."
"The liberalization of trade would result in an increase in tobacco use in the region," Burk Fishburn of the WHO's Western Pacific regional office, said in an interview.
"Tobacco companies stand to gain from the drop in tariffs, because the price of cigarettes will drop, boosting sales," Hatai Chitanondh, president of the Thailand Health Promotion Institute, told IPS.
The WHO is echoing calls by anti-tobacco activists like Hatai for ASEAN governments to exclude tobacco products from the free trade agenda.
"Tobacco products should not be included on the list of goods to benefit from the AFTA," says Hatai. "This is the only way to lessen the health consequences of smoking in the region."
The WHO wants governments to view tobacco products as they do guns, which cannot be traded liberally. "There are a number of products that are excluded from free trade deals, such as guns, and we think tobacco should come under this category," adds Fishburn.
This appeal to thwart the spread of tobacco products in Southeast Asia comes a month-and-a-half after 168 countries completed the signing of the world's first public health international treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
Of that number, only three nations -- Brunei, Burma and Singapore -- of ASEAN's 10 members -- which also include Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, Philippines, and Vietnam -- have ratified the anti-tobacco treaty.
The FCTC was negotiated over four years by the 192 member states of the WHO and approved as a legally binding document in May 2003.
It offers countries a range of measures to be included in local tobacco control laws. Among them are a ban on tobacco advertising, compelling tobacco companies to display a health warning covering one-third of a cigarette packet's cover and protecting citizens from second hand smoke in public places, such as restaurants.
In addition, the FCTC endorses the need to crackdown on cigarette smuggling, "including the placing of final destination markings" on packets and an increase of tobacco taxes.
Currently, there are over an estimated 1.1 billion smokers in the world, and South-east Asia has been singled out by the WHO as having the "second highest annual per capita growth rate in tobacco consumption."
That stems from more people smoking in the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.
According to the WHO if governments fail to contain the cigarette habit, the prevailing number of deaths per year globally due to tobacco-related diseases, which is five million, will mushroom to 10 million annually by 2030.
Seventy percent of those deaths, the UN health agency warns, will take place in the developing world.
"Trade liberalization will most likely increase death, disease and the economic cost due to tobacco use," Dr. Shigeru Omi, regional director of the WHO's Western Pacific division, said in a press release.
The reality of tobacco use is that "the economic costs to society are staggering," he added, quoting a World Bank study that reveals the net economic cost of tobacco use exceeding estimates of "the economic benefits to producers and consumers by at least $20 billion each year."
Such a dismal message, however, has still to be absorbed by Southeast Asian governments with the exception of Singapore and Thailand, says Hatai.
"Most governments are quite weak on health issues when it is up against free trade," he adds. "And the voice of the affected is usually weak in this region."
He accuses tobacco companies of pushing governments to keep their products within the goods to benefit from the trade agreement.
The current trade volume between ASEAN's 10 members is close $100 billion, up from the $73 billion in the value of trade in 1998.
ASEAN leaders launched plans to establish AFTA in 1992, with the aim of boosting the region's competitive edge as a production center for the world market. Trade liberalization within the region, including an end to tariff and non-tariff barriers, was vital to that effort.
August 17, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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