Today marks World No Tobacco Day and this year marks a special milestone for the anti-tobacco movement in Thailand.
Dr Prakit Vathesatogkit, executive secretary of the Action on Smoking and Health Foundation, is one of two Thai medics who received the "Dr Lee Jong-wook Memorial Prize for Public Health" from the World Health Organization this year.
The accolade also marks a milestone for the anti-smoking movement in Thailand.
The percentage of smokers in Thailand has dropped over the past several years thanks to the efforts of anti-smoking campaigners such as Dr Prakit. Last year, the percentage of smokers per total population was 9.9 million or 17.4%, a dip from 19.1% in 2017 and a significant reduction from 30% in 1976.
Such reductions were possible because anti-smoking campaigns were broad in their scope; using education, legal, tax and lobbying measures while also challenging the tobacco industry itself.
But challenges remain. Tobacco causes over 8 million deaths globally every year, including 81,000 in Thailand.
Among challenges faced by campaigners is the rise of contraband cigarettes after the authorities last year increased cigarette taxes to discourage smokers. Last October, the tax rate was raised to 25% for packs of cigarettes costing up to 72 baht and 42% for more costly packs. Authorities also raised the volume tax from 1.20 to 1.25 baht per cigarette. The tax hike however created a backlash with contraband cigarettes coming through the country's borders to be sold online at much cheaper prices.
Another challenge is the popularity of smoking e-cigarettes -- known as vaping. These have been banned in Thailand since 2014. However, interest groups, including tobacco companies, are lobbying the government to lift the ban.
The growing popularity of e-cigarettes gained momentum this month after Digital Economy and Society (DES) Minister Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn pushed on with efforts to have them legalised, despite such a stance contravening the public health ministry's policy to maintain the ban.
Mr Chaiwut said legalising e-cigarettes would enable the country to tax their sales and would provide a safer option for those unable to quit smoking regular cigarettes.
Meanwhile, the public health ministry's stance is based on medical research such as that published in the UK medical journal Thorax which claimed that inhaling second-hand vape smoke can increase the risk of developing chronic lung diseases and, in the majority of cases, shortness of breath.
Such challenges mean a legal ban and higher taxes might not be sufficient to further reduce smoking in Thailand.
To further deal with this, the authorities need to focus on providing more education to the public about the actual health effects of smoking. For e-cigarettes, they need to base their decision on credible information to make the correct policy. Public discussion on the matter is also needed.
If not, consumers could be swayed by interest groups to continue with what is a dangerous habit, and the campaigns to reduce smoking will plateau.
To deal with contraband, the authorities need to crack down on the black market, especially online shops. That means DES Minister Chaiwut might have to spend more time doing his duty in seeing that illegal tobacco racketeers are arrested, instead of him supporting e-cigarettes.