Viet Nam Country Profile

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Key Points

  • Viet Nam is a country located in South East Asia, part of the World Health Organization’s regional office for the Western Pacific (WPRO).
  • It has a population of 98.2 million, with tobacco use prevalence of 24.9%.
  • Viet Nam ratified the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) in 2004. It has not joined the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.
  • The Vietnam National Tobacco Corporation (Vinataba), a state-owned company, has the largest share of the national cigarette market, at nearly 58% in 2022.
  • Of the transnational tobacco companies (TTCs), British American Tobacco (BAT) has by far the largest share of the market in Viet Nam, with Imperial Brands in second place. Philip Morris International (PMI), Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and others have smaller market shares.
  • The tobacco industry has deployed a range of tactics to protect its interests in Viet Nam, including lobbying policy makers, use of third parties, complicity in the illicit trade in tobacco products, and spreading misleading information.

Although Viet Nam has made significant progress on tobacco control in recent years, it continues to face major challenges. Tobacco prevalence amongst men remains very high.1 There is ongoing industry influence on policymaking, particularly on issues such as price and tax of tobacco products.2 The state-owned company Vinataba enjoys special privileges from the Vietnamese state, and has long claimed a position as an affected stakeholder on matters of tobacco control.34 There has also been interaction between the transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) and the Vietnamese state, including during the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the WHO FCTC.5

Tobacco Use in Viet Nam

In 2022, the population of Viet Nam was 98.2 million.6 According to a WHO age-standardised prevalence estimate, based on all national survey data between 1990 and 2019, overall prevalence of current tobacco use was just over 25%.1 There is a major gender difference, with current male tobacco use at over 48%, compared to just over 2% for females.1 Smoking has been an important aspect of social behaviour amongst Vietnamese men for many decades; offering cigarettes is considered to be a show of good manners.2

As of 2019, less than 3% of adolescents aged 13 to 17 were current tobacco users (i.e. they had either smoked cigarettes or used waterpipe on at least one day of the 30 days prior to the survey).7

In the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2015, overall prevalence for traditional bamboo waterpipe was 6.7%. This was higher for people aged between 45-64 (8.9%) and those living in rural areas (8.3%).8 Smoke from Vietnamese waterpipes tends to have very high nicotine content: the tobacco typically used is Nicotiana rustica, known locally as thuốc lào, which can contain up to 9% nicotine compared to 1-3% in standard tobacco leaves.9

There were an estimated 97,100 deaths attributable to smoking in 2019.10 This means that smoking accounted for over 15% of mortality in the country for that year.10 In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, the cost of tobacco use to the Vietnamese economy was estimated at nearly US$1.2 billion.11 This was almost 1% of national GDP that year and around US$425 million more than the tax revenue the government received from the industry.11

A 2022 study suggested that use and awareness of e-cigarettes in Viet Nam is relatively low.12 However, the Vietnamese market for newer nicotine and tobacco products is expanding. According to market analysis by Statista, in 2022 the e-cigarette market was worth around US$22 million, up from US$7.7 million in 2014, and projected to reach US$24.7 million by 2027.13 Research conducted in June 2020 indicated that e-cigarettes were being sold mainly by speciality retailers and most of the brands available were Chinese imports. Brands popular in Western countries – such as BAT’s Vuse, Imperial Brands’ Blu and JUUL – were rare.14

According to Tobacco Control Laws – an archive of global tobacco control legislation maintained by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids – as of May 2023, there were no restrictions on use; advertising, promotion and sponsorship; or packaging and labelling of e-cigarettes.1315 This lack of regulation, combined with Viet Nam’s relatively large population and high tobacco prevalence, make it an extremely attractive target for transnationals selling e-cigarettes and other newer nicotine and tobacco products.1514

Tobacco in Viet Nam

Market share and leading brands

In 2022, market research company Euromonitor International estimated the Vietnamese tobacco industry to be worth VND₫104,094.9 billion – approximately US$4.4 billion.16 The state-owned Vietnam National Tobacco Corporation (Vinataba) has the largest market share, accounting for nearly 58% of the cigarette market in 2022.17 Vinataba’s range of brands includes Vinataba, Viet Nam’s most popular cigarette.18 Established in 1985, Vinataba has long enjoyed special privileges and recognition from the Vietnamese government.3 In addition, the government retains the right to appoint Vinataba’s chair and CEO.4

Transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) producing and distributing tobacco products in Viet Nam are required to establish joint ventures with Vinataba.4 Amongst the TTCs, British American Tobacco (BAT) has by far the largest market share, accounting for nearly 29% of the cigarette market in 2022.17 BAT has more than doubled its share of the market since 2001, and dominates the mid-range and premium market sectors with brands such as Craven A, White Horse and State Express 555.181920 Imperial Brands has a market share of 7% with one brand, Bastos. Similarly, Philip Morris International (PMI) has a share of 3% with one brand, Marlboro. The remaining companies account for another 3.5% of the market.1718

Tobacco farming and child labour

From 2000 to 2020, the area of land dedicated to growing tobacco in Viet Nam fell by nearly 49%.21 However, crop yield per hectare has more than doubled, meaning that in 2020 Viet Nam produced over 29,000 tonnes of tobacco leaf – around 200 tonnes more than in 2000.21 Nonetheless, this is a steep drop from 2010, when Viet Nam harvested 56,530 tonnes of tobacco from an area of 31,484 hectares.21

Viet Nam’s most recent National Child Labour Survey, conducted in 2018, identified more than a million children in a situation of child labour.22 Of these, more than half were working in the agriculture sector – though the report does not mention tobacco growing specifically.22 However, Vietnamese tobacco was one of the products identified in 2022 by the U.S. Department of Labor as having been produced by child labour, in violation of international standards.23

Tobacco and the economy

Viet Nam is a net importer of tobacco leaf. According to UN Comtrade, in 2021, it imported US$242 million in unmanufactured tobacco, compared to just over US$9 million in exports.2425 Comtrade data also states that Viet Nam is a net exporter of cigarettes: US$182 million in 2020, compared to just over US$63,000 in imports.2627

However, these figures differ significantly from customs declarations found on Datamyne, which suggest that Viet Nam is a net importer of cigarettes. According to Datamyne, the value of Vietnamese cigarette imports in 2020 was nearly US$537 million, compared to exports of nearly US$270 million.28 The import and export figures for raw tobacco are also different: according to Datamyne, Viet Nam imported close to US$337 million in raw tobacco in 2021, compared to around US$17.6 million in exports.28

Illicit trade

According to the Vietnamese government, 54.7 million packs of illicit cigarettes were seized between 2013 and 2018.29 It estimates that the illicit tobacco trade accounts for 15% of the national market.29 This is roughly consistent with research conducted in late 2017 by the Development and Policies Research Center, which concluded that illicit cigarettes accounted for nearly 14% of total cigarette consumption in Viet Nam.30

By far the most popular illicitly traded cigarettes in Viet Nam are the brands Jet and Hero, which together account for around 85% of the illicit market. Both are manufactured by the Indonesian company Sumatra Tobacco Trading Company and then smuggled to Viet Nam.312 Both Jet and Hero sell for significantly higher prices – between 30% and 60% – than the average legal brand of cigarettes in Viet Nam.2

Roadmap to Tobacco Control

Viet Nam ratified the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) in 2004.32 However, it has not yet joined the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.

The main tobacco control law in Viet Nam is the Law on Prevention and Control of Tobacco Harm, passed in 2012. It is the country’s first ever comprehensive tobacco control law and a major public health milestone.33 It established smokefree spaces; increased the size of graphic health warnings on tobacco products; restricted tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; and set up the Tobacco Control Fund, a sustainable source of funding for tobacco control initiatives paid for by a dedicated tax on tobacco.3334 More than ten subsequent decisions, decrees and joint circulars have built on this law and further strengthened tobacco control.35 This includes the National Strategy on Tobacco Harm Prevention and Control, which set specific targets to reduce tobacco use prevalence from 2013 to 2020.36

For more details, please see the following websites:

Tobacco Industry Interference in Viet Nam

Tobacco industry tactics used in Viet Nam include lobbying policy makers, use of third parties, complicity in the illicit trade in tobacco products, and spreading misleading information.

Influencing policy

For the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), the Vietnamese state’s majority ownership of Vinataba clashes with its duty to regulate the tobacco industry.4 Vinataba has long claimed a position as an affected stakeholder on tobacco regulation, allowing it a seat at the table in discussions on issues such as taxation and illicit trade.4

There has also been some exchange of personnel between the government and Vinataba, with high-ranking executives at Vinataba appointed to powerful positions in government – particularly at the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MOIT) – and vice-versa. Several senior officials left government to subsequently assume roles in Vinataba.37 Vinataba’s General Director (as of August 2023) was formerly deputy director of the Department of Light Industry, which is controlled by the MOIT.38 Vinataba’s Secretary of the Party Committee and Chairman of the Member’s Council is a former vice director of the Industrial Policy and Strategy Institute, a government entity.38

Vinataba’s influence is most obvious when it comes to price and tax. Cigarettes in Viet Nam are among the cheapest in the world: as of 2020, the price of a 20-pack – even of a premium brand – was less than one U.S. dollar.1 In 2021, taxes accounted for under 39% of the retail price of the most popular brand of cigarettes – well short of the 75% recommended by the WHO.1 Research by the World Bank has concluded that Viet Nam’s tobacco taxation policies have made cigarettes more affordable. Per capita income in Viet Nam has risen considerably in recent decades, outpacing the increase in the price of cigarettes, and increases in tobacco taxes have not been sufficient to close the gap.2

In 2017, the Ministry of Finance proposed switching to a mixed excise tax system, with a flat rate of VND₫1,000 – around four U.S. cents – imposed on top of the usual ad valorem tax on the factory price of tobacco products.2 This would have made little difference to the affordability of cigarettes; health officials had argued for increase of between VND₫2,000 and VND₫5,000.2 Vinataba, along with the Vietnam Tobacco Association, opposed the move, claiming it would lead to difficulties in tobacco production and business operations and increase the risk of smuggling.2 At the time of writing, Viet Nam had yet to introduce the mixed tax regime.39

The industry has also lobbied for the diversion of funding away from the Tobacco Control Fund – which is supposed to be used for public health purposes – and towards combatting illicit trade. Vinataba has made requests of this nature to various ministries and local governments.4 In 2017, the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) sent a letter to the U.S. Ambassador in Viet Nam, urging him to reconsider the Embassy’s facilitation of meetings between Philip Morris International (PMI) and Vietnamese government ministers, on the grounds that PMI would attempt to raise fears over illicit trade and seek diversion of funds away from the Tobacco Control Fund and towards anti-smuggling measures.40 SEATCA reported the same year that the MOIT had endorsed a recommendation from the tobacco industry to divert half of the Tobacco Control Fund towards enforcement activities against illicit trade.41

The tobacco industry has also interacted with the Vietnamese delegation to the Conference of the Parties to the WHO FCTC.5 During COP6, held in Moscow in October 2014, PMI executives met with the Vietnamese delegation. Analysis of the delegation’s interventions by tobacco control groups observing the COP showed that they frequently mirrored positions held by PMI.5 For example, they argued that higher tobacco taxes would fuel the illicit trade and that the FCTC should be excluded from trade disputes, as well as opposing uniform parameters on legal liability for tobacco companies.5 Likewise, at COP7, held in Delhi in November 2016, PMI held meetings with members of the Vietnamese delegation away from the conference venue.5

Use of third parties

In June 2020 the R Street Institute, an American public policy thinktank, sent a letter to the Vietnamese prime minister and deputy prime minister urging them “to consider pragmatic regulations that allow Vietnamese citizens broad access to reduced-risk products.”42 It also argued that inserts in cigarette packets should be permitted in order to market such products to current smokers; that it should be possible to place “relative-risk labels” on these products; and that maximum nicotine levels should be high enough “to achieve nicotine delivery similar to combustible cigarettes”.42

Endorsing the use of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products (HTPs) as cessation tools, the letter refers specifically to IQOSPMI’s flagship HTP brand (though PMI has also sold e-cigarettes under the IQOS brand).42 From 2014 until at least 2022, R Street received funding from Altria – the primary asset of which is Philip Morris USA, the largest tobacco company in the United States.4344454647

In the same month, Factasia also sent a similar letter to the Vietnamese prime minister.38 Factasia describes itself as “an independent, not-for-profit, consumer-oriented advocate for rational debate about – and sensible regulation of – the rights of adult citizens throughout the Asia-Pacific region to choose to use tobacco or other nicotine related products.”48 It acknowledges receiving funding from PMI, as well as the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association (TVECA), an e-cigarette trade association. However, it denies acting as a mouthpiece for the tobacco industry.49

Complicity in smuggling

There is evidence that the tobacco industry has smuggled its own products into Viet Nam. Internal British American Tobacco (BAT) documents from the 1990s show how BAT and its subsidiary smuggled State Express 555 (SE555) cigarettes manufactured in the UK into Viet Nam.5051

BAT had been attempting to establish a presence in Viet Nam since the late 1980s, though with considerable difficulty. Negotiations on the terms of a joint venture with Vinataba were extremely slow, while a ban on foreign imports in 1990 meant that BAT would either have to license a Vietnamese company to manufacture its products locally or purchase equity in a local factory.19

Smuggling facilitated BAT’s entry into the Vietnamese market in two ways.19 Firstly, by circumventing the import ban, BAT managed to create brand awareness amongst Vietnamese smokers and obtain a competitive advantage prior to any opening of the market.19 Secondly, by highlighting loss of tax revenue due to illicit trade, BAT was able to use smuggling as leverage in its negotiations with Vinataba.19 An internal BAT document from 1993 states “We have the high ground [in negotiations with Vinataba] given the excellent quality of distribution, presence, and value of the GT [i.e. smuggled] product.”52

The same BAT document states that “Both versions [i.e. licit and illicit cigarettes] will have a role to play in the further building of the brand and the ‘system’ profitability”.5253 Indeed, BAT continued to smuggle its own products into Viet Nam even after signing an agreement in 1994 which licensed Vinataba to manufacture SE555 locally.19 BAT carefully controlled the price of both the licit and illicit SE555, with the smuggled cigarettes fetching higher prices because they were perceived to be of higher quality.50 BAT finally signed a US$40 million joint venture with Vinataba in 2001, for construction of a brand new leaf-processing plant in Dong Nai province.1954 This was followed by a further agreement in 2006, under which 150 million packs per annum of Pall Mall and Viceroy would be manufactured for the domestic market, as well as another 50 million packs per annum for export.19 Even then, illicit BAT products did not disappear from the Vietnamese market. As recently as 2017, illicit SE555 were still selling at 169% of the value of the licit version.30

Spreading misleading information

Most existing estimates of the illicit tobacco trade in Viet Nam are based on industry data and rely on methods which are opaque, undisclosed or difficult to replicate over time.2 While the government estimated in 2020 that illicit trade accounted for 15% of the national market, and independent research from 2017 put that figure at 13.72%, tobacco industry estimates are significantly higher.2930 Japan Tobacco International Vietnam, for example, states that “the rate of smuggled cigarettes is quite high (more than 20%) on the market”.55

Oxford Economics (OE) put the share of total illicit consumption at 23.4% in 2017.2 An economic advisory agency with links to the tobacco industry going back to the early 2010s, OE produced yearly reports on the illicit trade in Asia between 2012 and 2017 which were funded by PMI and based on PMI-approved terms of reference.565758596061

These reports have been criticised in the strongest terms by Dr Hana Ross of the University of Cape Town, writing for the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA):

“The common denominator to all pieces of this study is PMI and its TORs [terms of reference] with all of the multiple parties in the report’s chain of production. This is a way for PMI to control the final results—by controlling the input, the data analysis, as well as publication, distribution, and promotion.”62

This exaggeration of the scale of illicit trade is a well-documented means of fighting tobacco control measures such as graphic health warnings, plain packaging and increased tobacco taxes. However, there is no evidence to show that tax increases have led to an increase in the illicit trade in Viet Nam; on the contrary, the illicit trade declined even after a 5% increase in the ad valorem tax rate in January 2016.30

Relevant Links

Tobacco Tactics Resources

TCRG Research

For a comprehensive list of all TCRG publications, including research that evaluates the impact of public health policy, go to TCRG publications.

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