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Cambodia - Poverty on Scorched Earth (23 Jun 2004)


In Cambodia, one of the seven poorest countries on earth where Mekong River meanders across, nearly 40% of its population live below poverty line. However, the Southeast Asian country still tops the world in terms of its number of smokers. In spite of the 60% smoking prevalence among males, anti-smoking campaign in the country is not without merit. A decade ago, in 1993, more than 70% men and 10% women were smokers. The streets in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh feature the sight of cyclo rickshaws. Most rickshaw drivers are low-incomers who have received little, if any, education. Under the ‘ Tobacco-free Cyclo ’ campaign with the collaboration of World Health Organisation, local medical groups and Cyclo Rickshaw Centre, rickshaw drivers are encouraged to quit smoking. The project, which also aims to relieve poverty, has an additional benefit of displaying anti-smoking words along the way. However, faced with limited resources, the campaign has only managed to attract a few more rickshaw drivers to join in every year. Indeed, anti-smoking campaigns in Cambodia have always been fraught with fiscal shortage. Almost three decades of wars and military unrest have almost wiped out Cambodian economy. In a bid to kick start the economy, market liberalisation was initiated in 1993 to lure foreign capital. Among the first foreign investors were tobacco companies, which regarded the Cambodian market as the one with the brightest prospect in Asia. Suddenly, the streets and the newsstands were flooded with posters and umbrellas showing advertisements and logos of cigarette products. Cigarette girls gave away tobacco sticks to passers-by, many of whom were young people. In Cambodia, young people aged below 18 account for half of the country ’ s population. Since statistics show that 14% of smokers started smoking after trying cigarette for free, special public education programme has been launched to publicise anti-smoking messages. In 1995, the early years of the liberalisation policy, cigarettes took 30% of Cambodia ’ s imports. The proportion was uncommonly high by world standard. Ironically, most Cambodians could hardly afford foreign cigarettes. According to anti-smoking campaigners, most of the cigarettes were being smuggled into neighbouring countries. In Cambodia, most people live in countryside. Among rural men, 85% are smokers. Some tobacco companies have unveiled local products to cater for this market. As many as 10 tobacco plants were set up by foreign companies in 1994. Meanwhile, rapid economic growth is not without a price. At the tenth anniversary of the liberation, the area of land devoted to tobacco growing has increased by nearly 80%. As a large volume of wood is required to process tobacco leaves, illegal timbering is rampant. Besides, while foreign tobacco companies can provide a source of income, the Cambodian government has incurred a considerable amount of health expenditure. An inter-departmental committee has been formed to review the current tobacco policy in two to three years ’ time.

Smoke Free Planet
Publish Date: 
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
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