As some of the world’s biggest companies trumpet their arrival in Asia’s hottest frontier market, the tobacco industry has a different strategy: It’s slipping into Myanmar without fanfare.
The nation of 60 million people emerged from half-a-century of isolation and brutal military rule two years ago. With most international sanctions against the country lifted or suspended, foreign businesses from Coca-Cola and Unilever to Suzuki Motors have scrambled to get in.
So too has Big Tobacco but without the ribbon cuttings or grandly worded press announcements.
Japan Tobacco, No. 3 globally, quietly inked a deal nearly a year ago with local partner tycoon Kyaw Win. Company spokesman Royhei Sugata said a factory was being built, but refused to discuss details, from the project’s scale or brand name to the plant’s location.
China’s largest tobacco producer is also setting up a multi-million dollar joint venture.
“They seem to think by entering the market stealthily, they can avoid public scrutiny,” said Tin Maung, a retired army major and Myanmar’s top anti-smoking campaigner.
Awareness about the health hazards is low, tobacco controls are weakly enforced, and the anti-smoking lobby is effectively a one man act.
Over the last six decades, 89-year-old Tin Maung has written hundreds of articles in magazines and state-run newspapers, travelled to symposiums inside the country and out, and visited schools to warn youth about the dangers of smoking, funding all of his endeavors on his own.
A large proportion of the population smoke but only a fraction of them reach for filtered cigarettes.
According to a 2007 World Health Organisation survey, 45 per cent of all men smoke or chew tobacco. The rates for women and teenage boys are 8 per cent and 13 per cent respectively.
Under existing regulations, for instance, tobacco companies can promote their name by offering scholarships to children, sponsor community projects or using social networking sites such as Facebook.
“It’s also the only country in the region that still does not require pictorial warnings on cigarette packs,” said Tara Singh Bam, a technical adviser on tobacco control at the International Union against Tuberculosis and Disease after wrapping up his second visit to the country since it opened up.