The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling on business owners and employees throughout what it terms the ‘Western Pacific Region’ (WPR) to drive workplace safety policy through the implementation of universal smoke-free workplaces.

Demonstrating its frustration at the lack of action by legislators in some parts of the region to implement what it describes as “the global standard” in protecting the health of employees and customers, the international health body has launched a workplace Revolution Smoke-Free campaign.

“There is no need to wait for national legislation to make workplaces smoke-free says Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, adding “a smoke-free workplace is not a privilege, it’s a global standard”.

Among the alarming statistics that the WHO cites to support its claim of action needing to be taken now is research finding a 50 per cent higher rate of lung cancer among employees in bars and restaurants that allow smoking as opposed to the general population.

Empower employees and embolden employers

Three people die every one minute in the Western Pacific Region from smoking-related illnesses

The WHO’s Revolution Smoke-Free campaign aims to empower employees and embolden employers after years of negotiations with governments in the WPR have failed to result in the legislative advances required, the organisation noting that tobacco tax as a percentage of retail price is still relatively low in many parts of the region.

Highlighting its frustration the WHO says that although it traditionally targets governments to adopt and enforce smoke-free laws, even with the best understanding and intentions ‘strong opposition hinders the passage of effective laws’.

The seven Asean member states included in the 37 nations encompassed by the WHO’s WPR are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam.

At the same time as urging business owners and employees to implement  smoke-free work places and encourage others to do the same, the WHO is also encouraging employers to support workers who wish to quit smoking, highlighting the economic benefits.

“Smoking in the workplace raises operational costs and reduces productivity by adversely affecting the health of workers”, says Dr Young-soo, noting that the private sector in some countries is taking the initiative by voluntarily implementing smoke-free workplace policies.

Three smoking-related deaths a minute in WPR

Time lost due to employees smoking adds up to about 20 days lost productivity per year says the WHO

“Making workplaces completely smoke-free is an effective way to protect the health of employees and improve the bottom line” he says, adding research has found that the time spent on smoking breaks per employee amounted to 20 days lost work time over a year.

At the same time the WHO says businesses who have adopted a smoke-free workplace have seen cleaning costs drop by ten per cent.

According to WHO figures there are three deaths every one minute in the WPR due to tobacco-related illnesses, with some seven million people globally dying from tobacco-related illnesses annually; including some 890,000 non-smokers exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke.

Despite the alarming statistics the WHO says only nine out of 27 WPR member States have ratified comprehensive smoke-free laws covering all public places and workplaces.

Asean’s smoking addiction

While most countries in the WPR have laws restricting tobacco advertising and regulating who can buy, use, or sell tobacco products, tobacco smoking is still common throughout the region.

In its 2017 annual report the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SATCA) found that the region boasts some of the highest rates of smoking by males aged 15 years and over globally.

Regionally the highest rate of smoking is in Indonesia with a rate of 76.2 per cent, followed by Vietnam (47.7 per cent), the Philippines (43 per cent), Cambodia (44.1 per cent), Laos (56.6 per cent), Malaysia (43 per cent), and Thailand (41.4 per cent). At the lower end of the scale for tobacco smoking addiction in Asean is Myanmar and Singapore where 32 and 28 per cent respectively of males 15 years old and above smoke tobacco products.

The number of places where people can smoke in Thailand is becoming increasingly limited

It’s not all gloom. In Thailand smoking is banned in all indoor public places, workplace, and basically anywhere with a roof, in addition to sporting venues, hospital grounds, and parks.

In February the Thailand government introduced a strict smoking ban on 24 beaches in 15 provinces, including at major tourist destinations such as Phuket and Krabi. At the time the government said it was considering extending the ban to all beaches and onboard all boats and ferries (See: Butt Out! Smoking Ban Hits Thailand Beaches (video)).

Recent legislation saw the sale of cigarettes by the stick banned and the legal age to purchase cigarettes raised from 18 to 20 years.

In the Philippines recent legislation and that currently under consideration has seen the level of “sin tax” applied to alcohol and cigarettes increase dramatically, with a formula of steep increases slated for future years. Additionally, smoking in public places can attract a maximum fine of P10,000 ($189).

While smoking is banned in public places in Malaysia the minimum age for purchase is 18, with a 20-pack minimum set by the government under siege by tobacco companies and others who claim a smaller pack size will combat smuggling. Graphic pictorials must cover a substantial amount of the front and back of packets as with most other Asean member countries.

According to the WHO the Revolution Smoke-Free campaign has met with good support from business owners in a variety of industry sectors. Employers or employees wishing to drive the workplace safety ‘revolution in their country can get more information from the Revolution Smoke-Free website.

By Stella-maris Ewudolu, Journalist at AEC News Today

Stella-maris graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, Education from Ebonyi State University, Nigeria in 2005. Between November 2010 and February 2012 she was a staff writer at Daylight Online, Nigeria writing on health, fashion, and relationships. Since 2010 she has worked as a freelance screen writer for ‘Nollywood’, Nigeria.
The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ASEAN Trade Union Council.