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2023: The good, the bad and the ugly

2023 had mixed outcomes for tobacco control. The tobacco industry was on full throttle expanding its business while governments and international agencies continued to play catch-up with tobacco control. We had some wins with policy advancement while others faced challenges from Big Tobacco (PMI, BAT, JTI and Imperial Brands) as it undermined government efforts and continued its ugly practices to promote its lethal products.

Special mention must be made of the WHO’s crucial World No Tobacco Day theme, “Grow food, not tobacco” raised awareness about growing sustainable, nutritious crops and exposed the tobacco industry for interfering in attempts to substitute tobacco growing, thereby contributing to the global food crisis. Across the globe around 3.5 million hectares of land are converted for tobacco growing each year while growing tobacco contributes to deforestation of 200 000 hectares a year. WHO also supported a ban on cigarette filters as avoidable problematic plastics in the ongoing negotiations of UNEP’s Tobacco Plastic Pollution treaty.

Some governments did good in protecting public health from the tobacco industry’s interference while others caved-in to industry lobby. Here is a snapshot of what was bad and ugly (thumbs down), and good (thumbs up) for the year 2023.

2023 in review

1. The tobacco industry harms the environment with its products An estimated 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered globally each year. Cigarette butts, which are single-use plastics (SUPs), are considered the top-littered in international clean-ups. Cartons and packaging from tobacco products leave behind 2 million tons of solid waste annually.
2. PMI’s tactics to undermine work of COP10 According to a Guardian report, PMI ran a campaign to stop countries from cracking down on vapes and related products as part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). As expected, the industry has been releasing press statements criticizing the forthcoming 10thsession of the Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). This is exacerbated by the industry’s attempts to shape public perception by alleging a lack of transparency in the process.
3. Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates promotes industry position Regional e-cigarette front group, CAPHRA’s memberorganisations have written to their respective country FCTC delegations attending COP10 asking that each “includes at least one consumer of safer nicotine products”. Since the COP abides by Article 5.3 and excludes the tobacco industry, CAPHRA has accused the COP of being “outrageously undemocratic”.
4. Philip Morris International’s support for the Foundation for Smoke-Free World In September 2023, PMI announced it was terminatingits agreement with the FSFW with a substantial final grant of USD 125.5 million, a figure roughly equivalent to approximately three and half years of annual funding. The FSFW website continues to host information and research sponsored by PMI.
5. New Zealand rolls back their world-renowned measures to go smoke-free by 2025 New Zealand’s cutting-edge tobacco policies, aimed to make the country smoke-free by 2025 which included a ban on the sale of tobacco to anyone born after 2008, a drastic reduction in the number of tobacco retailers, and the reduction of nicotine in cigarettes to non-addictive levels, was rolled back on November 27th by the new coalition government.
1. Cambodia April 2023: JTI donated electronic equipment to the National Library of Cambodia under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts at a handover ceremony. InNovember, JTI participated in the National Career and Productivity Fair  at the Koh Pich Exhibition Hall in Phnom Penh enabling it to distribute gifts and conduct interactive games to attract the younger audience. These marketing tactics, while seemingly innocuous, raises questions about the promotion of the company, especially since Article 13 of the WHO FCTC, requires a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship.
2. Indonesia’s new health law is weak on tobacco control uly 2023 – The Indonesian Parliament approved the Omnibus Health Bill at its Second Level Meeting. Tobacco controls groups condemned the approval stating the Health Bill was rushed through and the process was not transparent. The new law does not ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.
3. Malaysia delists nicotine from the National Poison Act In April 2023, the Health Minister delists nicotine gel and liquid from the National Poison Act, enabling traders to sell e-cigarettes to minors. More teens aged 13-17 years old are vaping than smoking in Malaysia: 14.9% vaping prevalence (boys: 23.5%, girls: 6.2%) compared to 6.2% smoking prevalence (boys:10.8%, girls:1.7%). Malaysia deteriorated to 17th position out of 19 Asian countries in the Asian Tobacco Industry Interference Index.
4. Myanmar bows to industry, postpones life-saving standardized tobacco packaging for third time Compliance for standardized packaging of tobacco was first postponed to 1 January 2023, then to 31 December 2023 is now pushed to 31 December 2024. This third extension gives the tobacco industry a total of 38 months to comply with the law.
5. The Philippines regresses in the WHO FCTC implementation. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. assured 25,000 tobacco farmers nationwide that his administration will safeguard their livelihood, citing their “indispensable” contribution to government coffers. The Philippines Department of Agriculture called on tobacco growers to increase production when the WHO FCTC in Article 17 calls on governments to help farmers shift away from tobacco to alternative livelihoods.  The Department of Trade and Industry envisions the Philippines as a manufacturing hub of HTPs in the Asia Pacific region, with Big Tobacco eyeing investment opportunities.
Counter action
1. Stop Tobacco Pollution Alliance (STPA) advocacy to ban cigarette filters in UNEP’s Plastic Pollution treaty negotiations (INC2-INC3) gains momentum. Cigarette butts and the use of plastics in tobacco packaging are estimated to cost governments USD 1 billion a year in waste management costs and USD 20 billion a year in loss of marine ecosystem services. In September, WHO called for an immediate ban on cigarette filters in the treaty negotiations.
2. WHO takes firm action against e-cigarettes On 14 December, the WHO issued a statement calling for urgent action to prevent the uptake of e-cigarettes and counter nicotine addiction. WHO also released a technical note with detailed information on the evidence and factors underpinning its guidance.
3. European Commission to probe the real extent of the tobacco industry’s lobby The European Commission will investigate the extent of its exposure to tobacco industry influence, following complaints. A preliminary finding shows the Commission’s inconsistent approach to engaging with tobacco lobbyists amounts to “maladministration”.
4. SEATCA received status as official ASEAN entity On 28 May, SEATCA’s status with the ASEAN as anaccredited entity (civil society organization) was officially announced.
5. GGTC releases the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 covering 90 countries The 2023 GTI found the tobacco industry has intensified its interference in public health policy through a slew of tactics to overwhelm and undermine protective measures governments had put in place, while preventing other efforts from being adopted.
6. Regional and country-level tobacco industry monitoring (TIM) and publications SEATCA launched a new resource hub on electronic smoking devices during the WP Regional Workshop on ESD in September. The hub provides relevant research, publications and information on ESD as well as advocacy materials (powerpoints, social media cards and videos) Highlights include an updated list of tobacco industry front groups and a map on countries that have banned e-cigarettes.
1. Smoke-free Cambodia SEA Games in May The Cambodia SEA Games Organizing Committee (CAMSOC) prepared and supported the implementation of the ordinance, Tobacco-free Sports, in the 32nd Southeast Asia Games and 12th ASEAN Para Games 2023 in May.
2. RUKKI – New tobacco control NGO registered in Indonesia New NGO, Indonesia Health Policy Forum (Ruang Kebijakan Kesehatan Indonesia, RUKKI) was established in Indonesai to tackle tobacco control and other related health issues. In September, RUKKI released the 2023 Indonesia Tobacco Industry Interference Index through a press conference covered by major media.
3. Thailand maintains its ban on electronic smoking devices Despite coming under immense pressure from pro-e-cigarette advocates to roll back the ban on electronic smoking devices, Thailand stood firm in keeping the ban.
4. Singapore will crack down on international travellers carrying e-cigarettes Singapore authorities will step up checks at air, land and sea checkpoints as part of a multi-agency effort to clamp down on vaping to stop e-cigarettes from ‘taking hold in society’.
5. Vietnam’s Ministry of Health is standing firm in its call to ban electronic smoking devices despite industry pressure The Health Ministry in November 2022 had proposed a ban on electronic smoking devices such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products because of the harm they cause. Vietnamese authorities are alarmed that the use of these products are increasing – e-cigarettes use has increased to 3.5% in 2022, compared to 2.6% in 2019. There are also reports that many students require hospitalization due to nicotine poisoning and other harmful effects.

Here’s to stronger tobacco control and a healthier 2024. Happy New Year, everyone!