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New law bypassing illicit cigarettes

Packets of cigarettes displaying graphic health warnings sit on a table at the JTI International Tobacco office yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Packets of cigarettes displaying graphic health warnings sit on a table at the JTI International Tobacco office yesterday in Phnom Penh. Heng Chivoan

New law bypassing illicit cigarettes

The tobacco industry has urged the government to crack down on cigarette smuggling ahead of new laws mandating graphic health warnings, saying failure to do so gave smuggled products a competitive edge.

The warnings – displaying grisly charcoal-coloured lungs and an infant with severe breathing problems – will be required on cigarette packets from Saturday, but packs not sporting the images will continue to be seen on the shelves as vendors exhaust their old stock.

Cormac O’Rourke, general manager at Japan Tobacco International, part of the Association of the Tobacco Industry in Cambodia, claimed 5 per cent of the Kingdom’s cigarettes were illegally imported, and so were not subject to taxes, or health warnings.

“Our company . . . always respects the law of Cambodia and the other announcements related to the tobacco industry. But our concern is that, from our observations, 5 per cent of tobacco products on the domestic market are illegal, and that shows the unfair competition,” he said.

“We want to see the relevant authorities of Cambodia wipe out those illegal tobacco products from Cambodia’s market in order to encourage and build trust with the companies that are respecting the law.”

James Rarick, team leader for noncommunicable diseases unit at the World Health Organization in Cambodia, said this was a common complaint from the tobacco industry.

“Often we hear the tobacco industry say that different tobacco control measures [such as including graphic health warnings and higher taxes] will increase the smuggling problem . . . but there’s no evidence of that,” he said.

“Frankly, it’s really a matter of law enforcement.”

He added the images, together with other steps, were effective in deterring smokers, especially as they reached people with low-literacy levels.

Director of public affairs at the government’s Tax and Excise General Department Bou Bunnara admitted there was a smuggling problem and his department would address it.

“We will put more efforts to enforce the law in order to dramatically reduce the untaxed importation, and not only for cigarettes,” he said.

Cambodian-American doctor Mengly Quach said graphic images alone wouldn’t prevent smokers and the government needed to also increase taxes and crack down on illegal imports.

“In Cambodia, there are so many loopholes . . . you have to tighten the illegal importation of cigarettes; but in Cambodia, money talks.”

He said the government should put an age restriction on smoking, and tax cigarettes at a higher rate, with the funds to go towards educating children of the risks and treatment for cancer patients.

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