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Vietnam: A Smoker's Paradise

The tobacco industry is leading the pack in a country where 73% of men light up, and no one gets a dirty look.

April 18, 1998|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NHA TRANG, Vietnam — Economic times may be tough in Vietnam, but one industry is booming--tobacco. Everyone is lighting up. Cigarette sales are soaring. And no one gets any dirty looks.

With people having more discretionary income as Vietnam's liberalized economic policies take hold, the rate of Vietnamese men who smoke has risen to 73%, the highest in the world, various health agencies say. The sight of schoolboys on bikes--even tiny street kids toting shoeshine boxes--puffing away is common enough not to warrant a second glance.

"Of course I smoke," said Nguyen Van Hai, 62, a merchant in this coastal city that was home to a major U.S. air base during the Vietnam War. "When the Americans were here, I smoked Lucky Strike. Now I smoke a local brand, Tourism. They're not as smooth, but they're only [about 15 cents] a packet."

Vietnamese smokers, on average, spend more for cigarettes than they do for education or health care (both of which are subsidized by the government), researcher Christopher Jenkins writes in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

Per capita consumption, the Health Ministry says, has increased in direct proportion to the improvement in Vietnam's living standards--from 144 cigarettes a year in 1980 to 518 in 1996.

All this has not escaped the concern of health officials, but they have a problem in implementing restrictions: The government considers tobacco a promising export to the heavy smokers of Asia. It also knows that tobacco provides more than 100,000 jobs and, through taxes, contributes up to 6% of the state budget.

"At this point, we don't have a national policy on tobacco control," said health official Tran Thu Thuy, whose office wall displays the rarest of sights in Vietnam--a no smoking sign. "But we're discussing one. We know smoking causes deaths.

"We also know most people say they would like to quit, though we don't have any medicine or programs to help them yet. We received some patches sometime back. I don't know why. They must have been samples."

Still, changes are afoot. Two years ago, the government outlawed ads for cigarettes and spirits (but not beer) in newspapers and on billboards. It has also announced a ban on the sponsorship of athletic and cultural events by tobacco companies. Vietnam Airlines no longer allows smoking on its flights. And each cigarette pack now contains a warning, in small letters, "Smoking can damage your health."

The boom in smoking by Vietnamese men (only 4% of women smoke manufactured cigarettes, with many in rural areas preferring to roll their own or use pipes) has created such a bonanza for smugglers that two of every three packs sold in Vietnam have been brought illegally across the Cambodian, Laotian, Chinese or Thai borders. U.S. brands such as Marlboro are particularly popular and sell on the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, for about $1 a pack.

In fact, almost everything, from bicycles to cigarettes and whiskey, is smuggled into Vietnam, representing a major threat to the development of the nation's industries. In the past five years, Vietnam has confiscated 16 million cartons of cigarettes smuggled into the country. Disposing of the contraband is no problem: Vietnam exports the seized cigarettes.

The U.S. trade embargo--lifted in 1994--and low per capita incomes kept out international tobacco conglomerates for years. But not surprisingly, this country of 76 million increasingly prosperous people is now viewed as fertile ground for a new generation of brand-loyal smokers.

Philip Morris Cos., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and British American Tobacco Co. all have a presence here, mostly in joint ventures with state-owned Vietnamese companies, producing brands with Western names: Souvenir, ERA, Globe, Memory, Everest, White Horse, Tourism. As a phony marketing gimmick, some packs contain words in English such as "American blend."

At the state-owned Saigon Cigarette Factory--the nation's largest, with 2,000 workers--women wearing surgical masks and T-shirts that advertised various brands were turning out the top-selling Vinataba (45 cents a pack) by the bushel the other day while a loudspeaker blared the morning news.

A visitor from the United States, where 26% of males and 24% of females smoke, asked a worker if she knew that the anti-smoking mood is so pervasive in the U.S. that people may no longer light up in California bars.

She hadn't heard that. She asked: "Then what do they do to relax?"

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