JULY 17, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 2
tobacco company signs loom over a street in Phnom Penh.
You for Smoking
destitute Cambodia, Big Tobacco is showing that cigarettes can be healthyif
only for the economy
By KAY JOHNSON Phnom Penh
If lawsuits and worldwide restrictions have left international tobacco
executives feeling unloved, they might consider a visit to Cambodia's
Kompong Cham province. Here, far from being demonized, Big Tobacco is
viewed as a godsend. "Ever since the companies came, our lives have improved,"
says Tuon Maly, a 43-year-old farmer. In the two years since she started
selling to British American Tobacco, her family's annual income has doubled
to $2,000. They have bought a new rice mill and a motorcycle and spruced
up their two-room farmhouse. Best of all, her two eldest children, ages
20 and 16, can now afford to attend secondary school in a nearby village.
"We're very grateful to the company," she says. "We've seen nothing but
good from them."
Big Tobacco often gets slammed by health organizations for targeting poorer
countries. But one man's exploitation is another's development program.
Desperate for foreign investment after years of economy-shredding civil
war, Cambodia has been more than happy to receive multinationals eager
to develop the country's small tobacco industry. Since 1994, foreign companies
have opened 10 cigarette factories. This year, for the first time, Cambodia
has become a tobacco exporter, shipping 220 tons of leaf abroad. The result:
wealth all around. In Kompong Cham province, for example, some farmers
have seen their income grow 500%. "Tobacco has a big impact in alleviating
poverty," says Sok Siphana, Cambodia's secretary of state at the Ministry
ALSO IN TIME
not everyone is enamored of the tobacco boom. Health advocates fear that
the country's embrace of the industry, combined with liberal advertising
policies, will encourage smoking and lead to a health crisis. Already
86% of rural men smoke, and health officials worry that many of the nation's
6 million young people will pick up the habit. "In the short term, the
benefits from tobacco companies are very big," says Dr. Po Samnang, chief
technical officer at Phnom Penh's National Center for Health Protection.
"But in the long term it will cost the Cambodian people."
edition's table of contents
Cigarettes are by no means new to Cambodia. For generations farmers in
Kompong Cham have grown and hand rolled tobacco on the tranquil, verdant
banks of the Mekong River. What is new is the flood of multinational companies
entering the country in the past six years. Tobacco is now a $50 million
business, accounting for 2% of gdp and employing nearly 50,000 people.
British American Tobacco, to cite one leading investor, is seen as a model
corporate citizen. Besides investing more than $25 million, B.A.T. funds
a local reforestation program. Other big manufacturers who have invested
in Cambodia include Philip Morris, Japan Tobacco and Germany's Reemstma.
B.A.T. provides training and high-quality seeds to about 400 farmers in
Kompong Cham, who have seen their yields triple. Previously, Cambodian
leaf wasn't considered to be of export quality, but this year a group
of Sri Lankan manufacturers purchased some for factories back home. "Cambodia
has the potential to be a preferred supplier of tobacco leaf" in the region,
says Carrick Graham, B.A.T.'s corporate affairs manager. Cigarette sales
and manufacturing have in past years supplied up to 18% of state revenue,
generating $6.5 million in taxes last year alone. "It's a win-win situation,"
says Sok Siphana. "People are going to smoke anyway. At least multinationals
can provide some value-added benefits."
An accompanying explosion in cigarette marketing is causing concern, however.
Health officials worry that their anti-tobacco message is being drowned
out by a flood of advertising. According to the National Center for Health
Protection, cigarette ads on television and radio have quadrupled since
1996. Tobacco brands now make up 46% of all street advertising. "They
aim to tell the consumer that smoking is what healthy, wealthy, successful
people in other countries do," says Greg Hallen, an adviser to the health
promotion center. "Young people are probably going to be influenced by
that." Poor record-keeping in the past means it is difficult to know if
the marketing blitz has increased the rate of smoking, but health officials
are clearly alarmed.
To be sure, in a poverty-stricken country where the average life expectancy
is only 54 and where thousands die each year from malaria, land mines
and poor nutrition, cigarettes may seem a minor problem. And the economic
benefits of the fledgling tobacco industry may outweigh the dangersfor
now. It is difficult to convince farmers like Tuon Maly that Big Tobacco
is exploiting her and her country. But even she is aware of the health
risks. "My son is 20, and I have told him he should not smoke. I absolutely
forbid it," she says. The question is: Will Cambodians be able to reap
the benefits of tobacco without inheriting its ills?
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