Cambodia's government will soon ban tobacco advertising. That follows a law introduced in July requiring health warning labels on cigarette packs.
Anti-smoking activists say Cambodia's plan to ban tobacco advertising and promotion is a key milestone in efforts to cut the nation's smoking rate.
Dr. Yel Daravuth is the tobacco control expert at the World Health Organization's office in Phnom Penh.
He says the ban is crucial to efforts to reduce illnesses linked to tobacco. Yel says illnesses such as strokes, emphysema and lung cancer are on the rise in Cambodia, and that means the time to act is now.
"If we are not going to prevent and have control of the tobacco epidemic, we can see these diseases in the next five years are going to be raised more," Yel said.
Yel says studies show that developing countries can expect to cut their smoking prevalence by 8 percentage points over a decade if they implement an advertising ban.
In contrast, those that do not implement a ban see only a 1 percentage point drop.
Mostly male smokers
Smoking in Cambodia is a predominantly male affair: the most recent survey released in 2006 showed that 48 percent of males over 15 light up. That compares with over 50 percent in China, Russia and some African nations. In most developed nations, the rate is under 30 percent for men.
As in most of Asia, the percentage of women using tobacco is far smaller in Cambodia. Just 4 percent of women smoke in Cambodia. Yel, however, says almost 20 percent of Cambodian women chew tobacco.
Five years ago Cambodia signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a global public health treaty to fight tobacco-related diseases. Under the treaty, countries promise to ban tobacco advertising, sponsorships and promotions.
Aside from the health costs that smoking brings, Yel says cutting smoking could drive down Cambodia's poverty level.
"We can find that smokers spend at least 9 percent of the income that they earn every day to buy cigarettes - a huge amount of their money," noted Yel. "[They] Can use [it] for education, support the child to study, the family, the food - it's very important."
Tobacco company response
British American Tobacco, or BAT, is one of the biggest tobacco companies in the world, and dominates Cambodia's market with a 35 percent share.
BAT says it backs advertising restrictions and that the new law broadly matches BAT's own policies. The company says it does not market to youth or use celebrities in ads, for instance. The company also does not sponsor events unless those taking part and watching are adults.
But BAT's restrictions are not followed by all players in the Cambodian market.
Dr. Mom Kong heads the Cambodian Movement for Health, which wants restrictions on tobacco and alcohol use.
He says some tobacco companies openly market to young people - something the new law will prevent.
"I notice one that is very crucial for Cambodian teenagers and children to start smoking is the pop concert," the doctor said. "The tobacco industry invites the young celebrity to [give] propaganda about tobacco product. And in one concert you can see thousands of youth including children and women, and you just imagine [if] in one concert only maybe 1 or 2 percent of the audience start to smoke, how many children, teenager of Cambodia become a smoker?"
Mom Kong says that an advertising ban is one thing but enforcing the law could be trickier since it requires the coordination of local authorities, the police and the courts.
A short trip to a nearby supermarket makes his point. In July a law came into effect requiring every cigarette pack to carry a printed warning on the dangers of tobacco use, printed across 30 percent of the pack.
BAT complied, but two months on a casual scan of the cigarette shelf shows that most of its competitors have not.
But the government seems serious about this fight. Earlier this month the minister of health sent a letter to those companies warning them they risk losing their business licenses should they fail to comply.
The WHO's Yel says that is encouraging. It gives him hope that the country's 2015 goal to cut smoking rates by 5 percentage points will be met.