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Archive for April, 2014

Postcard from Myanmar: tea houses and tobacco promotion

22 Apr, 14 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor


Guest post by Peter Worland

The ubiquitous Myanmar tea house. You can hear the buzz of Burmese conversation emanating from such meeting places day and night. Old people on their daily catch up with neighbours meet here. Young people hang out and compare their new mobile phones here. New mums show off their beautiful babies here. We love these plentiful and congenial meeting places and can’t wait to find a table every morning as “coffee-o’clock” comes round. They call them tea houses and yes, the green tea comes complementary – but you pay for the coffee, and what coffee it is!

For foreigners like us it’s quite a display. With a broad smile and a flourish we see the young Burmese attendant hold a can high in the air and squirt condensed milk into a tin mug before adding a hot coffee mixture and depositing the combined steaming sweet stuff into tiny white cups. We have had to leave our usual coffee tastes behind, reminding ourselves that this is not our favourite Italian cafe back home in Sydney. No tattooed baristas proudly producing perfect espressos here. Myanmar coffee might not be to our taste, but it’s how the locals like it. So we’ve just had to get used to it.

But there is something happening in Myanmar’s tea houses that we will not get used to, nor accept: the massive increase in young people smoking, and the way in which the happy atmosphere and simple daily pleasantries of this much-loved tea house tradition have been besmirched by cigarettes and tobacco promotion.

Over the last four years my partner and I have been visiting Myanmar, we have seen one of the poorest countries in the world begin a magnificent transformation. When we first came, villagers we talked to would not speak Aung San Suu Kyi’s name for fear they would be taken away. Internet and mobile phones were restricted, new cars were as rare as hens’ teeth. But no more: the Myanmar that was a closed oppressive place four years ago with less than 300,000 visitors a year, will in 2014 welcome more than one million people. It is opening up to, and being accepted by, the world.

Must these people, now on the brink of political liberation after waiting for 60 years, be conned by the great marketers, big tobacco, into a life of increased disease and premature death?

In the tea house we see all the tricks and methods we witnessed in our youth in Australia. On each table next to the chilli sauce and serviette dispenser is a small clear plastic container containing loose cigarettes. Yesterday there was a promotion, so these cigarettes were free. Today the same cigarettes are five cents each. Pavlovian behaviour predicts that each day more and more young people will experiment. As we watch we see this happening; finding five cents to purchase a single cigarette is easy. The young boys who deliver our coffees with laughter and jokes also carry loose cigarettes from table to table, unashamedly pushing them on all they meet – old and young, some very young. We despair. The more who take it up, the more fashionable it becomes and so big tobacco’s insidious recruitment rolls on. 

Tobacco is arguably the most efficient man-made ‘murdering machine’ of non-combatants the world has known. Yet just as some countries are turning the tide, the peddling of this poison in many emerging economies is growing exponentially. Myanmar ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2004, but we see no impact of it in the daily rituals of the tea houses. Does opening up to the world also have to mean welcoming the tobacco industry to the country?

As a tobacco warrior from the mid-1980s in Australia, I remember well the battle to get the first legislation in the world to ban tobacco advertising and hypothecate cigarette levies for health promotion purposes through the upper house of the Victorian state parliament. I personally witnessed Bruce Redpath (a noted Cancer Council supporter and prominent Australian business leader) phone the three main funders of the political party which were threatening to block the legislation. I listened to these leaders agree that “no one in business worth their salt would work for a tobacco company today. It is time to act?”

Act they did, and in 1987 the legislation passed into law. The Victorian Health Promotion Association – VicHealth – was born, and today the state of Victoria is a global leader in tobacco control. In 2001, Myanmar’s neighbour Thailand took the same step and established the Thai Health Promotion Foundation. Thailand’s achievements in tobacco control in the 13 years since show that the rise of the tobacco epidemic is not an inevitable and unavoidable by-product of economic development.

As we sip on our super-sweet coffees in our now favourite Mandalay tea house and look around us at the unfettered tobacco promotion, we can only hope that leaders like Bruce Redpath will emerge with the intellectual and moral courage to say it’s now time to act to control tobacco promotion in Myanmar; to stop the epidemic in its tracks.

Peter Worland is a former advisor to the Victorian Minister for Health. The full story of the Victorian Tobacco Act 1987 can be accessed here.

Standardised packaging – UK moves closer

7 Apr, 14 | by Becky Freeman, Web Editor

The UK is one step closer to introducing standardized packaging for tobacco products. In an address to the House of Commons, Jane Ellison MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health, called for swift action in light of the recent report confirming the likely positive impact standardized packaging would have on the health of children.

“In light of this report and the responses to the previous consultation in 2012 I am therefore currently minded to proceed with introducing regulations to provide for standardised packaging. However, before reaching a final decision and in order to ensure that that decision is properly and fully informed, I intend to publish the draft regulations, so that it is crystal clear what is intended, alongside a final, short consultation, in which I will ask, in particular, for views on anything new since the last full public consultation that is relevant to a final decision on this policy. I will announce the details about the content and timing of that very shortly but would invite those with an interest to start considering any responses they might wish to make now. The House will understand that I want to move forward as swiftly as possible.”


e-cigarettes hot topic in global tobacco control

3 Apr, 14 | by Becky Freeman, Web Editor

At the 6th European Conference on Tobacco Control in Turkey last month, the panel discussion on e-cigarettes was one of the most popular and controversial sessions on offer. While much of the data presented was from the UK, there is near universal agreement that e-cigarette use has risen in the past few years, that some (if not most) of the marketing and promotions are clearly attractive to the youth market, and that there is lack of transparency from the industry about it aims and sales targets. Agreement on issues surrounding how best to regulate products and the utility of e-cigarettes within a comprehensive tobacco control framework remains elusive.

Simon Chapman has blogged a series for the BMJ on e-cigarettes and we recommend these posts and ensuing comment discussions to our TC Blog readers:

1. e-cigarettes: the best and the worst case scenarios for public health

2. Will vapers really “quit and (not) die?”

3. Why is Big Tobacco investing in e-cigarettes?

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