Since the return of Big Tobacco to Myanmar en masse in 2013, smoking rates have increased markedly. Tobacco control experts warn that the firms’ sophisticated strategies are likely to push more people into the clutches of addiction
From the backseat of a traffic-stranded cab attempting to travel from Yangon’s airport to
a city hotel, Myanmar’s burgeoning love affair with cigarettes quickly starts coming into focus.
Vendors peer into car windows, peddling cigarettes. Calling one over, the cab driver buys two individual filter tips and lights up, eagerly espousing the low cost of his favourite brand, Red Ruby.
In the city’s central downtown area, kiosks selling everything from a single brand to a staggering array of tobacco products are situated on nearly every street corner. And the smokers aren’t far behind. Cigarette vendor Sein Win, 46, is adamant that more people have taken up the habit in recent years, although this has not translated into an increase in customers – he blames the sheer number of salespeople trying to ride the boom. “My sales rate is lower than before because there are new vendors opening,” he said.
While many in the country have traditionally preferred chewing betelnut or smoking cheroots – local cigars that turn popular teashops into a haze of smoke as customers puff away with aplomb – Myanmar is currently seeing a rapid increase in the popularity of manufactured cigarettes as political change swings open the country’s doors to investment.
Tobacco firms were among the first global brands to descend upon Myanmar in 2013 after its quasi-civilian government began implementing reforms. Japan Tobacco International (JTI), British American Tobacco (BAT) and the state-owned China Tobacco now all have a presence there.