Warning: Thailand still far from smokefree

Over the course of the last two weeks, I travelled throughout Thailand. Along the way, I met several fellow Canadians and over the course of conversation people always ask what I do now that I live in Los Angeles. As soon as I mention that I work for the American Lung Association in California, they immediately made one or both of the following comments:

  1. How graphic cigarette warning labels are and how gruesome they are compared to those in Canada; seeing as how Canada is known for having some of the most alarming pictures and stats on their mandated labels.
  2.  How I must be appalled by the number of people freely smoking everywhere.

I must say that the first thing I noticed was the number of tourists smoking. There were several times in restaurants where we left early or moved our seats to avoid smoke exposure, as non-smoking sections didn’t seem to exist. Upon my return, I googled “Smokefree Thailand” and was shocked to find out that in 2006 a law was passed that prohibits smoking in public places – this includes hotel lobbies, offices, restaurants and cafes, private karaoke rooms (hooray), massage parlors and spas , bus stops , MRT and the Skytrain and any indoor air-conditioned facility where the public congregates. The ban excludes open-air spaces, bars and nightclubs. Supposedly there is a fine for the individual offender and for the establishment which does not comply. That being said, the law may look good on paper but I see some serious problems in terms of enforcement, given that I assumed there was no smokefree policies at all. Come to think of it, all of the restaurants I dined in were open-air facilities and so they are exempted. 

The ghastly photos of blackened lungs, tumors and gangrenous feet were displayed in the front most position on each convenience store’s countertop. Next to these cigarette displays, there were small packets of 4-5 cigarettes in a clear wrapping. My best guess was that these were for those casual smokers or others who just wanted to pickup a few to carry on them for the day/night. Oftentimes, I saw the staff preparing those smaller packets for sale, so I assume they were pretty popular. If I were a smoker, I know I’d want another package to put my cigarettes in, so I wasn’t constantly reminded of the health threats of smoking by seeing those frightening images.

Given the reach and frequency of exposure, warning labels have the potential to have a significant impact on smoking behavior. Knowing that the FDA’s Tobacco Control Act is rolling out their new regulations next month, I wondered if such labels stigmatize smokers and denormalize smoking. Accordingly, I did a bit of research online and discovered that since Thailand introduced their second set of pictorial labels in 2006 with warnings being enhanced to 50% of the pack size, the percentage of smokers stating that the labels made them think about the health risks “a lot” increased from 34% to 53%, and those stating that the labels made them “a lot” more likely to quit increased from 31% to 44%. For more information on the impact of warning labels, please click here.

–Jennifer Paul

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