BANGKOK, THAILAND — The marketing space for selling tobacco has shrunk considerably since the days when the Marlboro Man roamed freely across TV screens and city skylines around the world. Many countries now restrict the advertising of an addictive product that medical authorities say kills millions every year.
But few have gone as far as Thailand. Citing a ban on advertising, the Thai government ordered vendors in September to remove all cigarettes from display or risk a $50,000 fine. Activists say cigarette packets are effectively advertisements that should be hidden from view. Stores now carry signs advising customers to request tobacco products from their staffs.
The Thai measure is the latest skirmish in the global fight against smoking, which is increasingly focused on the developing world where at least 65 percent of tobacco is now consumed. The stakes are high in the rising economies of Asia, where an estimated 50,000 teens take up smoking every day, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Western tobacco companies facing stagnation at home have long sought a larger piece of the Asian pie. In their way stands a vocal antismoking lobby that is bending the ear of Asian governments and beginning to make some inroads, even in societies with entrenched smoking cultures.
"If you look at why Thailand has been successful [in curbing tobacco], you can't ignore the role of civil society in pushing governments to take action and mobilizing public opinion," says Bungon Rittipakdee, coordinator of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, an advocacy group.
Apart from Bhutan, where smoking in public was banned completely last year, Thailand has adopted the toughest tobacco controls of any developing country.
And there are results to show for it. A generation ago, over 60 percent of Thai adult males smoked. By 2004, the rate had dropped below 40 percent, though the trend for Thai women has been rising.
While Thailand's smoking rates remains high compared the US (now at 22 percent), it is lower compared to other Asian countries. For example, around 70 percent of men are reported to smoke in Vietnam and Indonesia where cigarettes are cheap and readily available. And China accounts for roughly 1 in 3 of every cigarettes smoked worldwide, according to the WHO.
A new factor is the new WHO-backed Framework Convention on Tobacco Control that came into effect earlier this year and has been ratified by 94 countries, including India, Malaysia, and China, the world's biggest producer.
This treaty requires participants within five years to impose tough restrictions on tobacco sales, including a total ban on advertising and sponsorship, and has been hailed as a turning point by antismoking campaigners. (The US has signed but not ratified the treaty.)
Despite being a major tobacco producer, Thailand ranks among the toughest markets for hawking the product. Cigarette packets carry gruesome pictures of diseased lungs and rotten teeth that cover half the available space, and smoking is banned in most public places. Film and television producers aren't supposed to show images of smoking, and cigarettes are airbrushed from old programs and movies.
Observers say Thailand's well-organized health lobby has been effective in nudging policymakers, helped by revered monarch King Bhumipol who warned last year of the dangers of youth smoking.
In addition to Thailand, three other countries mandate graphic visual warnings on cigarette packets - Canada, Brazil, and Singapore. Hong Kong lawmakers last month began debating a similar proposal.
Last month, Canada also become the first country outside the US where governments can sue tobacco manufacturers for smoking-related health costs.
But Thailand's Sept. 24 ban on displaying cigarettes in stores is a step too far for some. Retailer 7-Eleven has resisted the removal of display cases behind its counters and challenged the regulation, as has Thailand's state tobacco producer. Thailand's Council of State is expected to rule on the dispute by mid-November.
While 7-Eleven continues to openly sell tobacco products, it has also cut down the size of its displays in 3,000-plus Thai outlets.
"It's our way of showing that we're willing to cooperate with any government campaign to reduce smoking," says company spokesman Suwit Kingkaew, who adds that tobacco products make up 5 percent of total sales.
Campaigners say that retailers receive special incentives from tobacco brands, including a generous "slotting fee" for an eye-catching display, a claim disputed by 7-Eleven. But with fewer and fewer opportunities to push their product in Thailand, tobacco producers are feeling the pinch.
"This [ban] is critical for tobacco companies. They can't advertise anywhere. All the venues are closed. This is the only one left for them," says Dr. Hatai Chitanondh, a retired public health official who runs the Thailand Health Promotion Institute, a nonprofit foundation.
Among the public places where smoking is frowned upon are Thailand's Buddhist temples, though many monks still smoke, say campaigners. They blame worshippers for giving cigarettes as alms and praise the national Buddhist council for setting up a committee in September to tackle tobacco addiction.
On the streets of Bangkok, few smokers object to the crackdown. Taking a cigarette break outside his office, businessman Kirsada Limamapar, a regular smoker for over 20 years, says he's happy to see cigarettes off the shelves. "I'll try to quit again, I know it's bad for my health," he says.
• Ron Scherer contibuted from New York.