Thailand leads crusade against tobacco
On 14 December 2018 Thailand made history. It became the first country in Asia, and the first low and middle-income country in the world to adopt plain packaging for tobacco products, a tough tobacco control measure.
Thailand’s legislation on plan packaging requires that by September 2019 all tobacco packs must show no colors, brand images or any promotional information.
Plain packaging is a landmark measure for tobacco control that will help reduce the use of this deadly products in Thailand,” said Dr Daniel A Kertesz, WHO Representative to Thailand.
The new measure follows the Tobacco Control Act of 2017 which banned sale of single cigarettes and prohibited anyone under 20 years of age from purchasing tobacco. This complimented earlier legislation requiring 85% of the surface of tobacco packs to show graphic warnings of the adverse effects of smoking on health.
Thailand was among the first signatories to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a legal treaty that aims to protect present and future generation against the deadly health and socio-economic impact of tobacco use. In fact, Thailand had played an important role drafting it.
Behind Thailand’s tough measures have been its quiet crusaders against tobacco. One of them is Dr Prakit Vateesatokit.
Dr Prakit recalls it was 1986, when as an expert in pulmonary disease he was teaching at a medical school in Bangkok. The dean asked him to prepare a tobacco control campaign. Those days there was no funding for such activities, neither were there any civil society involvement. But the proposal grabbed his interest and Dr Prakit started the Thai Antismoking Campaign Project (ThaiASH) as its Secretary.
“The Thai government owned the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly (TTM) since the 1940s and it was a closed cigarette market,” he recalls. “In 1988, the Thai Cabinet approved budget for TTM to upgrade its cigarette production capacity. We civil society partners protested and called for a balanced tobacco policy, that ultimately led to the notification banning cigarette advertising in 1989. The National Committee Tobacco Control and Institute of Tobacco Consumption Control were formed under the Ministry of Public Health. It was one of our initial successes,” he says.
“Since then every time the tobacco lobby makes a move, we ensure stricter control measures are implemented and balance in maintained,” Dr Prakit says.
ThaiASH, together with a group of health-related NGOs, lobbied for tobacco control policies, engaged media and carried out awareness among people.
Thailand’s a a global model for tobacco control, and is based on close cooperation between the Ministry of Public Health, the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (ThaiHealth), and a very active coalition of non-governmental organizations guided by a unique generation of creative civil society leaders like Dr. Prakit.
“People don’t follow dense information and messages advising them to quit smoking, but they identify with personal accounts. Initially, I used some of my pulmonary disease patients and affected families as case studies. As the movement caught on, we were lucky that movie actors, famous monks and other public figures got involved. Their stories of quitting tobacco addiction played a crucial role in building momentum for the movement,” he says,
Tobacco is a serious public health issue in Thailand which has 11 million smokers. One out of every five adult Thai smokes, that includes almost half the men in the age group of 35-54 years. One out of every six young Thai of 13-17 years age is a smoker, and a higher proportion of younger women now smoke in comparison with their predecessors.
To address the risk of tobacco use, WHO has been collaborating with the Ministry of Public Health to strengthen tobacco control legislation, implement pictorial health warnings, smoke-free regulations, and increasing tobacco taxation.
Though the fight against the evils of tobacco in the country is far from over, Thailand’s tobacco control efforts over time have set the benchmark for other countries.