The Cabinet last week endorsed a tougher law on tobacco products and protections for non-smokers. The draft bill will now be sent to the National Legislative Assembly for ratification.
More than 10.9 million people have signed a petition launched by the National Alliance for Tobacco-free Thailand, calling on the Assembly to pass the draft into law.
The bill, set to replace two laws on the books since 1992, would raise the minimum legal age for buying cigarettes from 18 to 20 and increase the maximum fine for lighting up in a no-smoking zone from Bt2,000 (S$79.80) to Bt5,000.
Those caught selling tobacco to customers under 20 would face up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of Bt20,000, up from the current one-month jail term and Bt2,000 fine. The law would also make it more difficult to advertise tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes and hookahs.
Noting that more than 50,000 people die of smoking-related illnesses in Thailand each year, Alliance president Professor Somsri Paosawat said the Cabinet's endorsement of the bill was an "important present to Thai children and the Thai people" on World No Tobacco Day, which fell last Sunday.
Aside from the deadly consequences, our tobacco habit also imposes a huge financial burden on the country. An estimated Bt46 billion in state funds is spent each year on treating victims of smoking-related illnesses, according to the Thai Health Professional Alliance against Tobacco.
Thailand has enjoyed success in controlling smoking in public places. Thanks to an effective anti-smoking campaign and a law to protect non-users, the habit has largely been confined to outdoor areas and designated zones.
However, a rise in the number of new smokers is causing concern. Figures suggest that the habit is gaining ground among the younger generation. The average age of first-time smokers dropped from 16.8 in 2007 to 15.6 last year, according to a survey by the National Statistical Office. The survey placed the estimated number of smokers in Thailand at 11.4 million, 10 million of whom are regular smokers.
Statistics show that seven in every 10 Thais who take up the habit as youngsters remain smokers for life, according to Dr Nattawut Kaewsuttha of Srinakharinwirot University's Faculty of Dentistry.
In a Public Health Ministry survey conducted last year among 3,532 primary-school pupils aged 8 to 12, 22 per cent said their friends smoked, while 40 per cent admitted to having bought cigarettes for adult smokers.
Tobacco use is estimated to have caused 100 million deaths in the 20th century. The United Nations' World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that, if current trends continue, that figure could rise to one billion deaths this century.
"Public health is engaged in a pitched battle against a ruthless industry. [The] WHO and its partners are showing the ends the tobacco industry goes to in the search for profits, including on the black market and by ensnaring new targets, including young children, to expand its deadly trade," said Dr Douglas Bettcher, director of the agency's Department for the Prevention of Non-communicable Diseases.
However, the theme of the WHO campaign for this year's World No Tobacco Day - "Stop Illicit Trade of Tobacco Products" - failed to hit the target. The effort should instead have been focused on reducing the number of current users and preventing children from becoming smokers.
Prompted by the WHO campaign, a Thai executive at a multinational tobacco company has warned that the tough new tobacco law could trigger an influx of counterfeit cigarettes that would reduce excise revenue for the government.
With more and more older smokers either quitting over health concerns or succumbing to smoking-related diseases, tobacco companies are looking for new customers. Naturally, their main target is youngsters.
The new tobacco law will serve as a shield against these ruthless commercial interests and, as such, deserves the support of the public and the authorities. By discouraging youngsters from taking up the habit, we can protect them against the devastating illnesses that arrive in its wake and divert the huge portion of state funds spent on treating such illnesses to more worthy ends.