The year is 1945 and Cambodian men are packed into traditional longboats, ready to race each other in an event that “has been going on for more than 1,000 years” at the annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh is a great place to be a smoker. While smoking in the West these days effectively makes you a social pariah, with bars, restaurants and offices banning the habit, in Cambodia, cigarettes are cheap and there are very few venues that ban smoking indoors.
Nonetheless, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced Wednesday that Phnom Penh has been given an award for the city’s contribution to controlling tobacco use.
Despite the government’s failure to pass a law that would allow it to enforce most of the regulations outlined in the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Cambodia signed in 2005, the WHO rewarded Phnom Penh for its successful implementation of a 2011 sub-decree banning tobacco companies from promoting their brands in the city through advertising.
“This special award is for Phnom Penh Capital City’s outstanding contributions to tobacco control, especially in the enforcement of the sub-decree on banning tobacco advertising, promotions and sponsorship,” the WHO said in a statement.
About 10,000 people die each year in Cambodia from diseases related to tobacco use, according to 2011 figures from the WHO.
A 2011 survey by the WHO and Ministry of Planning found that while the percentage of smokers had decreased slightly, the number of tobacco users has actually risen in Cambodia, from 1,924,000 in 2006 to 1,993,000 in 2011.
And although Phnom Penh has been cleared of most of the large tobacco advertisements and billboards that once lined the streets, the government has not achieved similar results in other areas of tobacco control, said Yel Daravuth, the National Professional Officer for the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative and Health Promotion in Cambodia.
Two of the major factors that continue to encourage smoking in the country are the minimal taxes on tobacco that allow cigarette prices to remain as low as about $0.25 per packet and a failure to make public spaces and places of work smoke-free, he said.
“We encourage [the government] to think about a comprehensive draft law on tobacco control that includes advertising, a smoke free environment, graphic warnings and so on,” said Mr. Daravuth.
For years now, the government has stalled on passing a comprehensive tobacco law that was supposed to follow Cambodia’s signing of the WHO’s framework on tobacco control, according to Mark Schwiso, the country director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, which has been working to reduce tobacco use in Cambodia since the mid-1990s.
“In general, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of political will among key individuals,” he said, adding that many companies continue to disregard the 2011 sub-decree by posting small advertisements at cigarette shops or setting up large displays at supermarkets and shopping malls.
“From an image standpoint, there has been a lot more awareness of the risk of tobacco, but every step that you put in place reduces smoking rates that much more,” he said.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, referred questions about the tobacco bill to Sok Touch, director of the Ministry of Health’s communicable disease control department, who declined to comment.
Regarding a ban on smoking indoors, Phnom Penh municipality spokesman Long Dimanche said that City Hall has already asked large restaurants to impose smoking bans.
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