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The good, the bad and the ugly of 2021

2021 has been another chaotic year as the COVID-19 pandemic lingered and the tobacco industry continued to exploit the pandemic to undermine governments’ efforts in tobacco control. As tobacco control took a back seat in some countries, transnational tobacco companies (PMI, BAT and JTI) resorted to their bad tactics and registered huge profits for their business. This is ugly because their products cause disease and death and also increase the risk of smokers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, there were a few governments who did good in protecting public health from the tobacco industry’s tactics and implemented strong public health measures. Here is a snapshot of what was bad and ugly (thumbs down), and good (thumbs up) for the year 2021.

2021 in review

International/ Regional

1.     Southeast Asia* tops world’s smokers list; 45% men in Western Pacific region use tobacco

According to WHO global report, Southeast Asia has the world’s highest number of smokers at 432 million. But WHO estimates the number of smokers will drop to 418 million in 2025. The Western Pacific region has the highest tobacco use rate among men, with more than 45% of men still using tobacco in 2025.

2.     PMI, BAT and JTI exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to conduct CSR activities

Across the ASEAN region, tobacco companies conducted CSR and handed out PPE and medical equipment to hospitals, health workers and law enforcement.

3.     Harm reduction proponents became more aggressive to champion their cause and interfered in COP9

ENDS front groups such as CAPHRAECST and MOVE championed harm reduction in the media, webinars and meetings and tried to interfere in COP9. The tobacco and related industries mobilized their allies to challenge the harm reduction position of the WHO and COP9. 

4.     Euromonitor approached tobacco control academics on behalf of Philip Morris International- funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World

Tobacco Control Journal reported that in October a Research Operations Manager working for Euromonitor contacted many tobacco control researchers asking if they would be willing to share their expertise on ‘sensitive’ industries such as the tobacco industry and other unhealthy commodity industries. Specifically, Euromonitor wanted to know more about their expertise on marketing and “harm reduction” products.

5.     KT&G, the 5th largest transnational tobacco company in the world, aiming to become No.4, expanded its business to 23 new countries

Since direct interaction with overseas markets was limited due to the pandemic, to overcome these limitations, KT&G implemented digitalization in its sales and marketing process. KT&G will increase its product portfolio of both conventional cigarettes and new tobacco products.


6.     Indonesia: Remains friendly towards the tobacco industry

Indonesia still allows tobacco advertising and sponsorship, has not changed its pictorial warnings on packs, remains a non party to the WHO FCTC. Tobacco related CSR continued to be endorsed by government.

7.     Lao PDR: Investment License Agreement between government and Imperial Tobacco Group is still in place

The 25-year (2001-2026) government joint venture with the Imperial Tobacco Group remains valid, which caps tax increases and provides incentives to the tobacco industry. Lao PDR lost about US$144 million it could have collected if not for this unfair contract.

8.     Malaysia: The government accepted CSR from the tobacco industry; taxation on e-cigarettes were announced thereby legalizing it

Ministry of Health received Philip Morris sponsored PPE charity, while the Deputy Minister of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs claimed cigarettes are “essential” to smokers. The government has applied tax on e-cigarettes in 2022 budget thereby legalizing them although the Poison Act has nicotine listed as class c poison.

9.     Philippines: JTI Philippines – A hub for Asia and beyond

JTI’s factory in the Batangas, Luzon, supplies to 15 markets, including the Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia, Mongolia and South Korea. The hub for Asia also handles duty-free volumes for Asia. Domestically, JTI has 39 sales and distribution offices nationwide and has a local cigarette market share of 37%. 

10.  Philippines: 3 Dirty Ashtrays at COP9; the Senate approves the vape bill

The Philippines was awarded a record 3 ‘Dirty Ashtrays’ at COP9 by civil society for promoting tobacco industry interests above public health.

The Senate passed the SB2239 which will make e-cigarettes more widely available by lowering the minimum age of access from 21 years to 18 years, allowing online marketing and sales (where age verification is practically impossible), allowing multiple flavors attractive to teens, and replacing the FDA with the industry friendly Department of Trade and Industry as the regulatory agency.

Counter action

International/ Regional

1.     COP9 took place successfully and adopted a decision to address COVID-19 pandemic

COP9 adopted a declaration on the recovery of COVID-19 and take appropriate measures to prevent tobacco industry interference and involvement in COVID-19-related public health policies and actions, in accordance with Article 5.3.

2.     WHO’s report on global tobacco epidemic, 2021: Addressing new and emerging products

While global tobacco control efforts have made good progress in reducing tobacco use, WHO’s new report shows how the tobacco industry is increasing customers with new tobacco products, including by attracting youths.

3.     Asia’s leaders reject Philip Morris’ sponsorship of conference

The 26th International Conference on the Future of Asia organised by Nikkei Inc. proceeded in May, minus the sponsorship of Philip Morris International (PMI). Following the decision from several leaders to withdraw from the conference because of the tobacco sponsorship, PMI pulled out its sponsorship.

4.     SEATCA released the 2021 Asian Tobacco Industry Interference indexes

In releasing the 2021 Asian Tobacco Industry Interference Index, SEATCA called on governments to better protect public health by tackling industry interference and implementing WHO FCTC Article 5.3.

5.     Brunei, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, Singapore

These countries remained strong and did not cave-in to pressure to revoke their ban on ENDS/HTPs.


6.     Brunei Darussalam maintained its lead in the Asian Tobacco Industry Interference Index

Brunei has implemented Article 5.3 through Prime Minister Circular, ‘Prohibition of involvement of the tobacco industry and smoking in government premises’, and curtailed industry interference.

7.     Cambodia banned heated tobacco products, and tobacco related CSR activities in education facilities

The Royal Government of Cambodia issued a Circular on measurement to prevent and avoid importation, trafficking, sale, and use of tobacco heated products (HTPs) banning HTPs effective immediately. This circular reinforces the 2014 circular which bans shisha and e-cigarettes.

The Ministry of Youth and Sports issued a new circular on tobacco-free policies in educational facilities and banned sponsorship or collaboration with the tobacco industry.

8.     Indonesia: Jakarta Governor banned outdoor tobacco advertising and pack display at outlets

Since September, outdoor tobacco advertising in Jakarta started being pulled down despite opposition from the tobacco industry and front groups.

9.     Myanmar: Plain packaging of tobacco went into force

Standardized packaging for tobacco products in Myanmar took effect on 12 April 2021 with a short ninety-day phase out of old cigarette packs by 12 July 2021.

10.  Thailand has maintained their ban on electronic smoking devices

INNCO, a harm reduction group funded by Philip Morris, met with the Digital Economy and Society Minister to lobby him to champion legalising heated tobacco products. Despite the pressure, Thailand has maintained their ban to protect young people from tobacco.

*Refers to WHO’s South East Asia region, not the ASEAN region

Here’s to stronger tobacco control in 2022. Happy New Year, everyone!