A recent factoid caught my eye the other day – the value of cigarette imports to Cambodia. Cigarettes are, by value, one of the leading imports to this nation. What an extremely unfortunate thing to trade in exchange for the hard labour that goes into producing rice, Cambodia’s leading export crop.
In 1999 one researcher reported that the very poor spend a 2-3 times greater fraction of their income on tobacco relative to the rich. In urban areas, a poor Cambodian might spend in excess of 7% of their income on tobacco, as opposed to 2% or less spent by the affluent. A secondary analysis of the 1999 Socioeconomic Survey of Cambodia indicated that the annual cash expenditure of Cambodian smokers on cigarettes was about $US69.44 million. This annual expenditure on cigarettes is enough to buy 274,304 tons of quality rice, 1,388,382 bicycles, or construct 27,778 wooden houses.
Alarming figures! And that’s without counting the health costs associated with smoking. By 2011 the annual spend on tobacco was just this side of $US100 million.
The Ministry of health in Cambodia has set objectives to reduce the percentage of smokers who are, overwhelmingly, males. in 2011 a thorough survey estimated that 42% of males aged 18+ a tobacco users. Of these males, 20% began smoking before the age of 15.
Tobacco usage amongst females, as we see in other parts of Asia, is relatively low – in the single digits – and, in Cambodia, often reflected in tobacco chewing rather than smoking. Tobacco chewing this often seen as a mild stimulant that eases period cramps.
In total there are 2 million tobacco users in Cambodia.
In many countries smoking is not an option for the very poor, due to the prohibitive cost of cigarettes. However price is not a barrier in Cambodia, and mainstream cigarette brands are available for less than $.40c for a pack of 20. (In 2011 the average price per pack of 20 was 20 cents.) So without a serious barrier, the demographic group most likely to be smoking in Cambodia are poor, rural males.
Cigarette tax seems to be most obvious way of curbing the number of smokers in Cambodia. Some 90% of the population agree that smoking is bad for once health, and a similar figure support the idea of a tobacco tax. Would it work? When the National Institute of statistics conducted its adult tobacco survey in 2011the fieldworkers were instructed to take note of cigarette packs of the users they interviewed. Some 95% of these packs for the seal of existing government taxes – evidence that black-market cigarettes are less well is distributed and some had feared. So a tax hike would be realistic.
Any visitor to Cambodia will have noticed the big billboards promoting cigarettes as glamorous – real Marlboro Man stuff! There is widespread public support for banning such advertising.
Change usually has to come from the top – the very top. For what it’s worth, Prime Minister Hun Sen, a lifelong smoker himself, recently announced that he had quit. Perhaps that clears the air for a more concerted public policy to prevent young Cambodian males in particular to take up cigarettes.
That seems unlikely. Oknha Ly Yong Phat, a CPP Senator, and previously an economic adviser to the Prime Minister is President of LYP Group that imports high nicotine cigarettes from Indonesia, Hero brand and Jet.
- For more on tobacco smuggling and dodgy imports read this Bangkok Post article.