Brunei’s smoking regime a drag for some – The Edge Review


Sultanate’s anti-smoking measures fuel black market – digital/app download available here (subscription)

Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei – The concierge at the Razak Hotel laughed uneasily, looking around the echoey lobby to make sure nobody was watching or listening.

“I got these from a someone who brings them from across the border,” he said, whispering as he rooted in his jacket pocket for what you might assume to be some elaborately-concealed narcotic.

Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei's quiet capital, played host to a major international summit this week. Visitors would have been wise to bring their own cigarettes. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei’s quiet capital, played host to a major international summit this week. Visitors would have been wise to bring their own cigarettes. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

In a country where drug possession can lead to the death penalty, he’s right to be vigilant and furtive. But the contraband aren’t drugs, but cigarettes – and candlesmoke-weak menthols at that.

Visitors to the Abode of Peace, a nickname for the Sultanate of Brunei, should know in advance that booze is for the most part unavailable Muslim-majority country – save for a few tiresome workarounds or bring-your-own-bottle arrangements at customs.

But less well known, it seems, is that while smoking isn’t illegal in Brunei, it might as well be, given how difficult it is to buy a pack of cigarettes anywhere in the country. That’s been something of a surprise for the hundreds of foreign journalists who showed up for the past week’s 23rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

“I am sorry, sir, we don’t have any cigarettes for sale around here,” said Sabad Sabar, standing behind an otherwise fully-stocked corner shop just around the corner from the Razak Hotel.

It was the same story in 10 different shops or restaurants I tried around Bandar Seri Bagawan, or BSB, the main town in the six-century-old sultanate of 415,000 people.

One way to procure some smokes – according to a downtown coffee shop barista, who like the hotel concierge, asked to remain anonymous – is to wait, Lou Reed-style, for “the man.”

“He comes in the morning and the afternoon,” the barista said. “If you want to get cigarettes, you can wait around here early, or you can leave me your name and number and I can tell him to call you when he shows up.”

The cigarette vacuum is but one of the quirkier aspects of what is a prosperous and sedate country – filthy-rich on oil and gas – and where crime, nightlife, booze and now cigarettes are all rarities, and where average per capita incomes are exceeded in the region only by Singapore.

Over the past year, most shops and restaurants have stopped selling cigarettes, citing a tax hike, while international tobacco manufacturers have left the market “after a series of radical regulatory and fiscal measures,” according to a September 2013 report by the International Tax and Investment Center and Oxford Economics, which estimated that the illicit share of Brunei’s cigarette market was a whopping 90 per cent in 2012.

Why? In 2010, the excise duty increased by 339 per cent, prompting legal cigarette sales to drop from over US$300 million a year to around US$50 million by 2011 and to US$ 30 million last year. Going by the near total absence of smokes in any shops now, legal sales in 2013 should be lower still, perhaps negligible.

Stricter requirements and and higher licence fees for retailers mean it’s just not worth their while to stock cigarettes.

Sabad Saber finally stopped selling cigarettes just over a year ago, after international brands pulled out and vending fees were hiked. “The taxes are so high, so there is no supplier and the licence for me to sell cigarettes is now 5,000 [Brunei dollars],” he told The Edge Review.

It looks like prohibition in all but name, and all with the blessing of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who in his September 15 birthday address issued a broadside against the cancer sticks

“The dangers of smoking have been long identified. It is so often repeated in public speeches, but cigarettes are still being circulated, bought, sold and consumed by the people, including Muslims.”

The Sultan went on, sounding exasperated, as if the notion of his subjects enjoying a sly fag or two was against the national philosophy of Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Muslim Monarchy.

“At what point will we act firmly to save the public and the country from the dangers of smoking? It is quite bewildering that we enthusiastically talk about healthy living, exercise, walkathons, but we are still stuck.”

But even though in an absolute monarchy such as Brunei-Darussalam, the Sultan’s word is close enough to being law, it doesn’t mean that people will emulate his health kick.

“People still smoke, smoker numbers are still the same,” Sabah Saber said.

And where do they get the cigarettes?

“They come from Malaysia and Indonesia,” he said. “Cigarettes are cheap there.”

Sultan Bolkiah chairing the ASEAN-US summit in Bandar Seri Bagawan on Wednesday last (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Sultan Bolkiah chairing the ASEAN-US summit in Bandar Seri Bagawan on Wednesday last (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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