For international tobacco companies struggling in their home markets with low sales due to an increasing awareness about the dangers of smoking, Myanmar is an exciting business opportunity.
In July, British American Tobacco, the world’s second largest cigarette manufacturer, signed a $50 million investment deal to produce, market, and sell its brand in Myanmar over the next five years, according to AP. The company plans to construct a factory on the outskirts of Yangon. The year before, Japan Tobacco entered into a partnership with local tycoon, Kyaw Win, and is building a factory. Even China’s largest tobacco producer is planning a multi-million-dollar joint venture.
Between one-third and half of Myanmar’s 60 million people consume tobacco in some form, mostly through chewing it in betel leaves or smoking cheroots, according to Aljazeera. Although only five percent of the smoking population uses filtered cigarettes, that number is expected to rise with the emergence of a large middle class with more disposable income.
Even after years of isolation, young people in this country want to be as “cool” as those in the West. Shisha usage is now hip among Yangon youth, especially females.
“We have to go out to a restaurant or bar to smoke, and it’s fashionable,” said Ko Aung Zin Latt, 28.
“I wanted to imitate the people I saw in movies. It seemed cool then,” said Kyaw Zin Lin, a 42-year-old who began smoking at 12.
The country has a widespread tradition of smoking. Children often help their fathers light cheroots and it’s common to see boys as young as 12 buy cigarettes from street vendors. Most citizens don’t even know how bad tobacco is for their health.
“I heard that smoking can be harmful, but not everyone who smokes gets cancer,” said Khin Cho, a 37-year-old housewife. “I am OK now, and I don’t want to worry about something that hasn’t happened yet.”
Although the country ratified the WHO Framework Convention against Tobacco Control in 2004, Myanmar has failed to implement some of its guidelines – such as putting health warnings on cigarette packaging. That along with insufficient and poorly enforced legislation for the tobacco industry makes Myanmar vulnerable to companies seeking profit. Under current regulations, tobacco companies can even promote themselves under the guise of offering scholarships to children or sponsoring community projects.
“Many countries don’t have trade lawyers, financial people to challenge [these multinational corporations],” said Judith Mackay, a senior adviser to the World Lung Foundation. “In 10 years Myanmar will get up to speed [with its legislation enforcement], but right now it is very vulnerable.”