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Big tobacco has some pull

A man smokes a cigarette near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
A man smokes a cigarette near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh yesterday. Hong Menea

Big tobacco has some pull

Tobacco lobbyists have helped draft legislation aimed at controlling the Cambodian industry, funded political campaigns and granted high-ranking government officials consultancy positions, according to a report released this week.

The study published on Monday by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, a coalition of advocates for tobacco control, suggests tobacco firms have successfully lobbied the government to postpone legislation aimed at controlling the tobacco industry, contributed money to government officials and convinced lawmakers to endorse legislation drafted by, or in consultation with, the companies.

Major tobacco-producing countries Malaysia and Indonesia were found to have the most aggressive tobacco lobbies out of the seven Asean countries surveyed, with the Philippines ranking third, followed by Cambodia.

As well as financial contributions, the study – The Tobacco Industry Interference Index – found that officials had formed partnerships with the industry, including taking money from British American Tobacco (BAT) to fund a branded smoking room at Phnom Penh International Airport.

Representatives of BAT and the European Chamber of Commerce could not be reached.

Cheam Yeap, a senior ruling party lawmaker, yesterday dismissed the findings of the study.

“We have not been involved in significant political contributions from the tobacco industry in Cambodia,” he said. “I think that it is inappropriate to make allegations about the deals.”

“We have an anti-corruption unit and if they have clear evidence, they should bring it for investigation of the deals,” he added.

As well as political contributions, the study found that tobacco firms continue to spend on so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs in Cambodia.

It also found that a lack of transparency and availability of information about the industry’s relationship with the government was a significant problem.

Dr Yeld Daravuth of the World Health Organization said yesterday that the lack of information on the tobacco industry’s dealings with the government was allowing secret deals to be made behind the scenes.

“It’s difficult to say [what the relationship is], because we don’t have any evidence of the industry’s interactions with government. We know from experience that they’ve been involved,” he said. “But everything is done in secret. They lobby and they do all kinds of things behind the scenes.”

He added that the companies’ spending on CSR programs should be taken with a pinch of salt.

“The CSR industry tries to build their image, but … studies we’ve done show that there’s not much truth in it.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG

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