Health experts on Tuesday called on the government to save Cambodian lives by raising tobacco taxes and use the revenues to expand healthcare benefits for the general public.
The call was made by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), World Health Organisation (WHO) and Cambodia Movement for Health (CMH) during a press conference held in Phnom Penh.
A joint press release said more than two million Cambodian adults consume tobacco products, with about 1.68 million – 32.9 per cent of the Kingdom’s adult men and 2.4 per cent of adult women – smoking cigarettes, while close to half a million chew tobacco.
Furthermore, the prevalence of smoking among young people is also increasing, with 2.9 per cent of boys and 1.9 per cent of girls now smokers, it added.
SEATCA executive director Dr Ulysses Dorotheo said Cambodia’s tobacco tax rate of between 25 and 30 per cent is still among the lowest in Asean.
“Brunei and Thailand currently impose a tax rate of between 60 to 70 per cent on tobacco products,” he said, adding that Cambodia must increase tobacco tax to 50 per cent of retail price.
According to Dorotheo, tobacco tax policies “have not yet been used to their full potential to discourage tobacco consumption and raise government revenues for social development programmes despite having been strengthened in recent years”.
Dr Yel Daravuth, a WHO Cambodia representative, said he regarded applying a high tax on tobacco as a “win-win policy”.
“It won’t cost governments money – rather, it brings in revenues that can finance healthcare benefits for all, while also discouraging smoking and preventing tobacco-caused diseases, thereby saving lives and more money.
“Each year, approximately 10,000 Cambodians die due to smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco and passive smoking,” he said.
CMH executive director Mom Kong said increasing tobacco taxes would result in less young smokers. He also stressed the importance of enforcing tobacco-related regulation equally and called on the government to implement grassroots efforts to raise awareness.
Kong added that experts agreed that adjusting tobacco tax rates regularly to keep up with inflation and changes in household income would stop “the continuous erosion of public health gains”.
“If tobacco products are taxed highly so they become expensive, regular people wouldn’t be able to afford them.”
Last year, a survey conducted by SEATCA, in partnership with the Royal University of Phnom Penh and the General Department of Taxation under the Ministry of Economy and Finance, showed that the majority of youths aged 18-24 said they would stop buying cigarettes if the price was $2.50 per pack.
The most popular cigarette brand currently costs only $0.50 per pack.
Besides making a call for higher tobacco taxes, experts also recommended that licences be required for all tobacco manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers to facilitate tax collection and combat illicit trade and production.
They also recommended that Cambodia’s tax structure be shifted to a “uniform specific” system, arguing that it is easier to administer than the current “ad valorem” system.
According to the release, tobacco use burdens the national economy by more than 644.75 billion riel – approximately $162.7 million – in healthcare costs and lost productivity annually.