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Southeast Asia a smoker's paradise no more

Governments are clamping down on tobacco use as concerns over medical costs rise

SINGAPORE -- Southeast Asia nations are starting to tighten regulations on tobacco use amid rising concerns over soaring medical costs and the harmful effects of passive smoking.

The region has historically been rather lax on the issue of smoking. Even in countries with regulations in place, authorities have often been lax on offenders. Now, however, governments are finding it harder to ignore the costs of smoking, in terms of both public health and state finances.

The Singaporean government is beginning the process to raise the minimum legal age to smoke from 18 to 21. The city-state wants to start parliamentary debate on the measure within a year and implement the change within several years. The government has already taken several steps to make Singapore a smoke-free state: Advertisements promoting tobacco are already illegal, and from August, displaying tobacco products at shops will also be prohibited.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to sign an executive order effectively banning smoking in any public space across the country, including on streets, at restaurants and on public transport. Smoking will be allowed only in specially designated rooms, and those who breach the rule will face a fine.

Thailand is set to raise the minimum legal smoking age from 18 to 20 when a new tobacco law is enacted in July. In February, Malaysia expanded areas where tobacco use is prohibited to include parks and other places popular among teenagers. The government is also considering raising the legal age of use 21 from the current 18.

According to World Health Organization data, 76% of males in Indonesia age 15 or older smoke. The figure is 43% in Malaysia and the Philippines.

Office workers taking a puff at a designated smoking zone in central Singapore. (Photo by Tomomi Kikuchi)

A major driver of smoking restrictions is concern that the habit can lead to higher medical costs, increasing the financial burden on government health care programs. Smoking has been linked to heart and other diseases. The number of deaths attributable to cardiovascular diseases in Indonesia almost tripled from 2000 to 2015 and nearly doubled during the same period in the Philippines.

Angry puffers

Moves to tighten restrictions on smoking are facing backlashes from smokers and the tobacco industry. In the Philippines, Duterte has been delaying the signing of the executive order, reportedly citing "resistance" and the need to "be careful" when presenting the nationwide order to the public.

The tobacco industry has been hit hard by moves to discourage smoking. Following the Malaysian government's tax hike on cigarettes, British American Tobacco Malaysia, the largest tobacco seller in the country, raised prices by more than 20% in 2015, causing a slump in sales volume. The company decided to cease factory production in Malaysia this year, laying off around 230 factory employees.

In Indonesia, where numerous global and domestic tobacco producers have set up shop, the industry is a major source of employment. In a country of some 250 million people, it is said to provide some 10 million jobs, including for farmers.

This massive scale gives the industry significant influence in the country's political and economic affairs, a factor that could be hindering government moves to restrict tobacco use. Indonesia still allows tobacco companies to advertise on TV and sponsor sporting events.

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