Friday, August 18, 2017

Will the cheroot tradition go up in smoke?

The industry faces many challenges. Reinvention is needed if the traditional cigarette is to survive.

A man puffing a traditional cheroot in Yangon. Photos: Aung KhantA man puffing a traditional cheroot in Yangon. Photos: Aung Khant

"I roll one thousand cheroots per day,” says 27-year-old Tin Ninlar Win as she finishes one thin cylinder and gets ready to roll another. “I started when I was thirteen”. That is a lot of Burmese cigarettes in a lifetime, but she fears that might end one day.

There are many girls like her in the factory she works in near Bago, one of the regions where the traditional Burmese cigarette is produced. But the number of workers is quickly falling.

Traditional Burmese cigarettes are facing a stiff competition. The Myanmar Business Directory lists no less than 60 tobacco businesses established in Myanmar and producing “modern” cigarettes.

The reopening of the country to big tobacco has not helped. According to the 2016  Statical Yearbook, there were 5 billion cheroots produced in Myanmar in 1991 and only 1 billion “modern” cigarettes. Today, traditional factories only churn out 2 billion cheroots a year, while modern cigarettes produce around 9 billion.

Myanmar is not short of smokers and the pool of consumers should be large enough for both the brownish thanet leaf cigarettes and the modern white smokes. According  the Ministry of health and the World Health Organisation, in 2014 about 43.8 percent of men and 8.4pc of women in Myanmar are smokers. And this number is rising according to the People’s Health Foundation, a Myanmar NGO.

But the real cancer for the cheroot industry is the shortage of workers.

“In my time, there was no career choice,” says Daw Khin Mar Aye an older woman working in the same factory. “boys would work in the farms, girls would roll the cheroot.”  It is no longer the case. “Some go to borders [with Thailand], others work in garment factory,” she notes.

Workers do not necessarily desert the traditional salary in search of a better salary. A traditional cheroot roller earns between K4000 and K4500 a day, while a garment worker makes just K3600 a day. But working conditions in modern factories are believed to be better.

The Burmese youth which does not puff on cheroots and primarily light up modern cigarettes. They are also tempted by the seductive clouds of “vaping”, also think that the cheroot is a thing of the past.

The cheroot's deep roots

Cheroots have a long history in Myanmar. Just like betel nuts or longyis, they are emblematic of Burmese culture. They were smoked by the nobles in the time of the Burmese Kings. Rudyard Kipling mentions them in his famous poem “On the Road to Mandalay”.

Some lament the decline of the traditional industry. Others don’t.

“Though smoking is part of Myanmar culture, it has [a] bad effect for us,” Dr. Than Sein, the President of People’s Health Foundation, told Weekend. “Not all traditions need to be maintained,” he adds.

He may have a point. Every year, more than 56,400 persons in Myanmar die from tobacco-related health issue according to the American Cancer Society and World Lung Foundation.

Most Burmese believe that the traditional cheroot is inoffensive. Dr Than Sein begs to differ.

“Both traditional cheroot and modern cigarette have [a] bad effect on the health, both are burning tobacco. Neither is less or more dangerous than the other,” he says.

Dr Khin Aye Myint, a  physician at the Aung San Hospital stresses that no serious study had been conducted on the subject, but evidence shows that both do damage the lungs of smokers.

The authorities have chosen their side. Even though the official policy is to reduce the number of smokers, and even if the cheroot industry is submitted to the same advertisement policy with its flurry of gruesome pictures, the taxman hits modern cigarettes harder.

Depending to the price of the products, the government imposes taxes ranging from K4 to K10 per cigarettes sold and only K1 per cheroot, according to  the People’s Health Foundation.

Rise from the ashtray

A more lenient tax policy might not do the trick on its own, warns specialists. And prospects for the traditional industry are grim, says a producer who has been in the business for 12 years. “In, say, five years, most of factories will have closed. Only the big ones will survive if we go on like this,” he says, requesting anonymity.

The cheroot barons are not the talkative type, they decline Weekend’s request for comment. But here is piece of advice, free of charge:

Cheroots have intrinsic values and, with a bit of rebranding, could sell itself as a luxury product. “The taste is more natural than your usual cigarettes,” puffs this Filipino connoisseur who fell in love with the cheroot after a colleague introduced him to it.

Another path to reinvention would be the use of “influencers”, fashionable social media figures who could make the cheroots look “cool” again. Facebook star Aye Thaung is promoting traditional Myanmar dressed through her network of followers, it would not be absurd for a Burmese Justin Bieber like, say, Sai Sai Kham Leng, to make the youth fall back in love with the traditional cigarette.

Whether that should happen, though, is another question.