Tuesday, September 17
September 16

No ‘butts’ about Asean healthcare


In the Philippines, there is no need to fear committing a faux pas by taking a cigarette from an open pack on a table. “They’re communal,” you will be reassuringly informed. At an average of US$1 a pack, who would bother to care?

In Southeast Asia (excluding Singapore), there is little economic incentive to forego that daily smoke. But it is this cost that many Asians, mostly male, are willingly paying now only to defer to disproportionate medical bills in decades to come.

If Asean nations want to offset some of the economic lag that this mushrooming addiction will cause, it’s far time to start targeting investments into healthcare. A comparative advantage already exists in some parts of the region. As a growing medical tourism hub, Malaysia’s opportunity to cater to the smoking-related diseases that will undoubtedly spring up in greater force in the region is stark and billowing out from all sides.

Myanmar and Vietnam, according to a recent report in The Economist, have among the most rapidly growing cigarette consumption rates in the world, with Myanmar being the world’s fastest growing smoking population. Vietnam isn’t far behind. The country comes in third in the global ranking, with the average person lighting up over 1,000 cigarettes in 2012.

Just to Malaysia’s south, lies a true titan of Asia’s smoking culture. Indonesia has the largest smoking population by percentage in Asean, with about 36 per cent of the country’s 240 million people indulging in packs that cost an average of US$1.29, statistics by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance show.

Kretek, a indigenous clove cigar, is the cancer of choice here. Communality inclined smokers in the Philippines make the nation the second largest in Asean. About 28 per cent of 94 million Filipinos are classified as smokers.

After taking in the tide of statistics and trends, it’s now time to exhale. Despite socially condoning (as evidenced by the lack of sin tax measures) vices that can devastate personal health, those in the region remain extremely health conscious, no matter their lifestyle.

Traditional medicine is ever in vogue across Asean, with the latest supplement or medicinal tea being stripped from the shelves. Whole businesses are being built from finding new ways to stay healthy – and families support this.

Indeed, it is the same communal mentality that helps egg on smokers that also brings those who many not agree with them together. Medical bills in Asia are usually a family affair – if one member falls ill, those around him/her are plucked forward to pitch in.

Healthcare will thus not only be of primary concern in Asia to family units, but increasingly the recipient of larger amounts of spending in a part of the world that is retaining harmful addictions with incredible zeal. An added element is air pollution, which will remain with mega Asia metropolises as economies are forced to feed the energy needs of burgeoning populations with more coal-fired supplies.

The private healthcare sector in Asia is led by expanding industry leaders that absorb smaller centers into their ‘economy of scale.’ In Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, the leading medical tourism hubs in Asean, these private sector giants tend to have the technology, the human capital and the technical expertise to get the credibility needed to continue expanding.

A wise investor would find a way to take part.

Justin Calderon is a research analyst at www.investvine.com, a news portal owned by Inside Investor focusing on Southeast Asian economic topics as well as trade and investment relations between Asian and the Guld Cooperation Council. The views expressed are his own.