Parliament approves import duty hikes

The People’s Majlis yesterday passed government-sponsored amendments to the Export-Import Act to raise import duties on 17 items from April 2015 onward.

The amendments (Dhivehi) submitted on behalf of the government by Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) MP Mohamed Ismail were approved with 49 votes in favour and 16 against.

Following ratification by the president, import duties for tobacco would be raised from 150 to 200 percent and from 90 laari to MVR1.25 for a single cigarette.

Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad told parliament’s budget review committee last month that the government anticipated MVR533 million (US$34.5 million) in additional income from import duties.

Among other items, custom duties for luxury cosmetics and perfume would increase from the current zero rate to 20 percent.

Additionally, duties for liquor and pork would be raised to 50 percent and a 200 percent custom duty would be levied for land vehicles such as cars, jeeps, and vans.

While the day prior to the budget’s approval the cabinet’s economic council reversed a decision to impose a 10 percent tariff on staple foodstuffs such as rice, flour, and sugar, the import duty for oil or petroleum products was raised from the current zero rate to 10 percent.

About 30 percent of the Maldives’ GDP is spent on importing fossil fuels. In 2012, US$486 million was spent on oil imports, and the figure is estimated to rise to US$700 million by 2020.

According to the Maldives Customs Service, of the MVR7.2 billion (US$466.9 million) worth of goods imported in the first quarter of 2014, one-third was spent on petroleum products.

The latest monthly economic review from the Maldives Monetary Authority noted that “the price of crude oil fell by 4 percent in monthly terms and by 12 percent in annual terms and stood at US$95.9 per barrel at the end of September 2014,”

Revising import duties was among several revenue raising measures in the record MVR24.3 billion (US$1.5 billion) state budget for 2015 currently before parliament.

The forecast for additional revenue for the 2015 budget was MVR3.4 billion (US$220 million), including US$100 million expected as acquisition fees for investments in special economic zones and MVR400 million (US$25.9 million) from the sale and lease of state-owned land.

The other measures included introducing a green tax of US$6 per night in November 2015 and leasing 10 islands for new resort development.

Tariffs were last revised in April this year after parliament approved import duty hikes for a range of goods proposed by the government as a revenue raising measure.

During last month’s parliamentary budget debate, opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs strongly criticised the proposed tax hikes, contending that the burden of higher prices of goods and cost of living would be borne by the public.

The current administration’s economic policies – such as waiving import duties for construction material imported for resort development as well as luxury yachts – benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, MDP MPs argued.

Related to this story

Government scraps plan to impose import duty on staple foodstuff

Parliament approves state budget for 2015 with 60 votes in favour

Government proposes import duty hike for oil, staple foodstuffs


High blood pressure “silent killer” of one in 10 Maldivians

High blood pressure is the leading risk factor for Maldivian deaths, and is much more prevalent among women than men nationwide.

One in 10 deaths in the Maldives, equaling over 100 yearly, can be attributed to this “silent killer” which often presents no symptoms.

High blood pressure – also referred to as hypertension – is a condition where blood vessels have a persistently raised pressure which can lead to heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, loss of vision, and premature death.

In the Maldives 32.9 percent of women, compared to 29.7 percent of men, are affected by hypertension, although the prevalence of men with hypertension is higher regionally and globally.

Hypertension has been increasing over the past decade in the Maldives. Economic progress has caused lifestyles to change drastically, reads a World Health Organisation (WHO) World Health Day report.

“In the era of globalisation, all countries are interrelated, rapid urbanisation, transition from agrarian life to wage-earning, and modern city life are considered to be the major contributors in the elevated blood pressure in urban areas,” WHO Representative Dr Akjemal Magtymova told Minivan News.

Unhealthy lifestyle and behavior risk factors for hypertension have increased, including consumption of processed foods containing excessive salt, low levels of physical activity, tobacco use, and obesity.

“Increasing levels of mental stress contribute to the adoption of unhealthy behaviors thus putting people at a higher risk of acquiring hypertension and related noncommunicable diseases,” the WHO South-East Asia Regional Director Dr Samlee Plianbangchang stated in his World Health Day 2013 message.

Magtymova explained “Some of the factors that may contribute to the higher prevalence of hypertension among Maldivian women include: no enough physical activity (affecting 41 percent of women in the Maldives compared with 37 percent of men), unhealthy diet (higher intake of salt, sugar and fat, – total cholesterol level in women is higher than in men), higher stress level, malnutrition in childhood and during reproductive age.”

For both men and women the prevalence of being overweight or obese is the highest in the Maldives compared to other countries in the South-East Asia Region.

“The 2008 data from the Maldives shows that among the adult population, 53 percent of women are overweight and 30 percent of men are overweight,” said Magtymova.

Over the past 14 years there has been an increasing trend of hypertension at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH), physician Dr Ali Abdul Latheef explained in the WHO World Health Day report.

“What is alarming is that we now see a lot of young hypertensive patients. Many patients are in their early thirties and sometimes as young as early twenties,” said Dr Latheef.


High blood pressure is both preventable and treatable, but remains a growing global public health issue, which is why ‘control your blood pressure’ is the WHO’s World Health Day 2013 (April 7) theme.

The WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise weekly to prevent diseases like hypertension, according to the WHO World Health Day article.

Eating a healthy diet including fruits and vegetables, while reducing salt and processed foods is also important.

Stopping tobacco use and reducing harmful alcohol intake must also be addressed.

However, regular blood pressure checkups are essential, because there are rarely warning signs of hypertension and it can also develop as blood vessels harden with age.

Magtymova stated the WHO recommends implementing evidence based strategies to address all behavioral risk factors for preventing hypertension.

“High level commitment is needed to reverse the growing burden of noncommunicable diseases in the Maldives.

“The WHO is assisting the Government of Maldives and working closely with the Ministry of Health to improve available data on risk factors, prevalence and trends, as well as address risk factors by establishing preventative measures,” said Magtymova.

She further detailed that the WHO closely collaborates and supports non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Diabetes Society of Maldives, SHE (Society of Health Education), Aged Care, the Autism Association, and Care Society.

Magtymova emphasised “A multi-sectoral approach is a key in addressing prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases as many determinants of non-communicable disease lie outside of the health sector.”

Thus, other UN agencies are also promoting healthy lifestyles, eating habits, school health education, as well as monitoring trends in malnutrition among children and mothers.


Parliament committee passes implementing tobacco-free zones as scheduled

Tobacco-free zones are to be implemented from January 1, 2013, after the Subordinate Regulations Committee of the People’s Majlis decided not to delay their introduction, local media has reported.

Entitled “Regulation of Determining Tobacco-Free Zones”, the regulation aims at inhibiting the consumption of tobacco products by prohibiting smoking in certain public areas.

Traders’ associations and MP for Nolhivaram Constituency Mohammed Nasheed proposed to delay the starting date of the Regulation for one year, according to local newspaper Haveeru.

Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs were reported to have  supported the proposal to delay the starting date, claiming there to be “a lot of issues” with the regulation.

After considering the matter, the Subordinate Regulations Committee made a final decision on a narrowly-approved vote.

Under the new regulation, smoking or similar consumption of tobacco will be prohibited within the following places; tea shops, cafes and restaurants, parks, government office premises, office premises of companies with government shareholding, office premises of independent state institutions, public places where people usually gather in numbers, old age homes, homes for those who need special care, and rehabilitation centres.

However, under special permission from the Ministry of Health, cafes and restaurants can define a special area where people can smoke.


Government bans smoking in public places

The government has published new regulations to control tobacco, banning smoking inside all government buildings, private restaurants, cafes, teashops and social spaces.

The regulation prohibits smoking at Rehabilitation Centres, children’s parks and places frequently visited by children, aboard ferries and ferry terminals and at any place where people have to wait in a queue to obtain services.

According to the new regulation places such as cafes and restaurants that want to have smoking allowed will have to apply for permission from the Ministry of Health. The permission will be granted to places determined by the Ministry.

Any person who smokes in an area determined to be non-smoking can be fined to MVR 500 (US$32) and the owner of a place that allows smoking in such places without authority can be fined MVR 1000 (US$64) according to the regulation.

The regulation states that if the owner of the premises has not put up the sign board to inform that smoking inside the place is disallowed, the ministry has the authority to fine the venue MVR 500 first time and MVR 5000 (US$3200) on further occasions.

The Centre for Community Health and Disease Control (CCHDC) estimates that the 44 percent of the total population use tobacco, mainly by smoking.

According to the Maldives Demography and Health Survey (MDHS) 2009, 42 percent of people in the age group 20-24 are smokers while 20 percent of 15-19 years age group smoke.

Customs data shows that in 2010 alone 346 million cigarettes were imported into the Maldives at a cost of MVR 124 million (US$8 million) – a disproportionate figure considering the 350,000 populace. In 2009, MVR 110 million was spent to import 348 million cigarettes – mostly included well-known brands such as Marlborough, Camel, and Mild Seven.

The first President of the Maldives Ameen Didi, who assumed office in 1953, banned tobacco in the Maldives. However, people were outraged over this decision and a group of rebellious citizens overthrew his government and lynched Didi in the street.


Maldives marks World No Tobacco Day

The Health Ministry has revealed that 44 percent of the Maldivian population use tobacco – an increase from 24 percent in 2004 and the highest percentage in the region.

According to figures published by the Ministry to mark International No Tobacco day, tobacco is responsible for 27 percent of all deaths in the country.

Approximately around 347 million cigarettes are imported into the country annually, the equivalent of 53 tonnes.

Statistics show that overall tobacco use prevalence is high compared to international standards with 57 percent of men and 29 percent of women having used some form of tobacco, with the number of female smokers on the rise.

Based on the import figures, the average Maldivian smoker consumes 2312 cigarettes a year – approximately six a day.

Unlike many countries which already impose strict supply controls and high prices on tobacco products, the Maldives has long enjoyed cheap rates with a pack easily available from shops between Rf18-25 (US$1.16-1.62), subject to brand, while a single cigarette costs one rufiya.

Following rise in import duty in the Maldives, the cheapest brand is available at almost Rf35 (US$2.27) and a single cigarette costs almost two or three rufiya.

By comparison, a pack of cheap cigarettes costs the equivalent of Rf66 in the USA, Rf112 in the UK and Rf158 in Australia.


Maldives government selects Ruder Finn for “controversial” brief: PR Week

The Maldives’ government has appointed US-based public relations agency Ruder Finn in a deal worth upwards of US$150,000 a month, reports public relations industry magazine PR Week.

However Deputy Minister of Tourism Mohamed Maleeh Jamal told Minivan News that the government was still evaluating the bids.

“I can’t disclose the costs or names, but we are evaluating three companies: one in India, one in China, and another in America,” Maleeh said.

President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s spokesperson, Abbas Adil Riza, told Minivan News that the appointed company would only be responsible for promoting tourism, and would not be involved in politics or government.

Tthe request for proposals (RFP) document issued by the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) on April 9 states that the successful agency will be required to target stakeholders in the UK, USA, Commonwealth countries, “all relevant EU institutions”, academic institutions and NGOs, “arrange 1:1 meetings with influential and open minded potential champions”, and “arrange briefings to build links at various levels with the UK, US, Commonwealth and major European governments.”

The agency will “feed in academic arguments to those identified”, and “determine champions who are willing to speak publicly on Maldives”, in a bid to “Rally an alliance of support for the Maldives”.

Locally, the chosen company will be required to “assist with the roll out of policy and other announcements to media, parliamentarians,government, NGOs and others.”

Speaking to PR Week, Ruder Finn’s Senior Vice-President and Ethics Officer Emmanuel Tchividjian defended company’s decision to take on the contract.

“We believe Ruder Finn can contribute positively to the people of the Maldives, a country that depends on tourism for the bulk of its economy,” Tchividjian stated.

“Prior to deciding to pursue the tender, we closely examined the complexity of the current political situation in the country. We were encouraged by the desire of the current government, in place according to the country’s constitution, to focus on ensuring stability, democracy and transparency in the Maldives, including a free press,” he said, but acknowledged “diverse points of view” surrounding the change of government on February 7.

The 50,000 member-strong Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which was ousted from power on February 7 following what then President Mohamed Nasheed described as a coup d’état planned by the opposition, sponsored by wealthy resort tycoons and carried out by a mutinous police and military, continues to maintain that the new President’s government is illegitimate and a return to the autocratic era of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

David Hardingham, founder of the UK-based Friends of Maldives (FOM) NGO that has issued a travel advisory against several resorts owned by those by the MDP accused of involvement in the coup, suggested to PR Week that Ruder Finn should “tear up the contract, and think twice in the future about with whom it does business.”

“Clearly our hope was that no responsible PR firm would shake hands with a dictatorship that toppled a democratically elected leader at gunpoint,” the FOM founder told the PR industry trade magazine.

“We can only ask ourselves: is a company with offices in seven countries and a long list of respectable clients really so desperate for the money? Because this kind of work does nothing for its reputation,” he added.

Controversial clients

Ruder Finn is no stranger to controversial clients. Up until the late 90s the company was instrumental in crafting an infamous campaign for US cigarette giant Phillip Morris disputing evidence that smoking was harmful to public health.

According to Sourcewatch, in 2004 the Ruder Finn was appointed to promote Israeli national carrier El Al, while in 2008 the company’s Israel branch represented a “Facing Jihad” conference, “a summit of European lawmakers who are united in their shared belief that Islam today poses a serious threat to Western civilization.”

PR in the Maldives

Other foreign PR companies that have been active in the Maldives have included the Campaign Palace, a London-based group engaged by former President Gayoom to develop his Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP), and New York-headquartered Hill & Knowlton (H&K), which was commissioned by Gayoom in 2003 and subsequently recommended – and in some cases implemented – most of the pre-2008 democratic reform in the Maldives.

H&K’s 2003 report on the Maldives, titled ‘Issues audit and communications strategy for the Government of the Maldives’, revealed that the firm was responsible for much of the human rights and governance reform that paved the way for the country’s first democratic election in 2008.

H&K’s recommendations included the separation of the security forces into police, military and correctional institutions, constitutional reform and the introduction of multi-party democracy, strategies for the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), reform of the Majlis, reform of the criminal justice system and an end to the practice of flogging.


Smokers react to dramatic rise in price of cigarettes

Ahmed Lizneen was just 14 when he first smoked. What started as an “experiment for fun” has now become a habit – he has struggled to quit over the years, but to no avail.

“It was my friends who gave the cigarette to me first. I had it for fun. Then I also started buying. Not the whole pack, but a few cigarettes at a time as it was cheaper. Slowly it became an addiction. I tried to stop many times, but just could not,” Lizneen explained.

Alarmingly high tobacco consumption

Statistics reveal an alarming proportion of the Maldivian population – especially youth – have succumbed by one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced: the tobacco epidemic.

The Center for Community Health and Disease Control (CCHDC) estimates that the 44 percent of the total population use tobacco, mainly by smoking.

According to the Maldives Demography and Health Survey (MDHS) 2009, 42 percent of people in the age group 20-24 are smokers while 20 percent of 15-19 years age group smoke.

Similar findings in a 2007 Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) showed that nice percent of the surveyed students are either smokers or have smoked in the past – while 48.7 percent students are exposed to second-hand smoke at home and 69.4 percent of students are exposed to it elsewhere.

A worrying trend has been observed with rising numbers of girls becoming smokers.

Statistics show that overall tobacco use prevalence is high compared to international standard with 57 percent of men and 29 percent of women having used some form of tobacco.

Based on customs data, in 2010 alone 346 million cigarettes were imported into the Maldives at a cost of Rf124 million (US$8 million) – a disproportionate figure considering the 350,000 populace. In 2009, Rf110 million was spent to import 348 million cigarettes – mostly included well known brands such as marlborough, camel, and mild seven.

Based on those figures, the average Maldivian smoker consumes 2312 cigarettes a year – six a day.

Leading public health experts have raised their voice on the issue.

Former Director General of the CCHDC Dr Ahmed Jamsheed wrote on his blog in July 201 that the “available statistics on smoking in the Maldives are alarming”.

“The Maldives still seems to be on the rising curve of the tobacco epidemic (we can still change this) and it will take several years to peak and show the full health impact of smoking and tobacco products. There is a lag of many years between the health effects of tobacco and the time people start smoking,” he wrote.

Meanwhile Ahmed Afaal, a public health service manager and tobacco prevalence researcher, says much needs to be done to control the growing “menace”.

“To protect the majority of the smoking Maldivians from death before they reach their potential life expectancy, strong laws are needed to reduce the supply and demand for tobacco,” he wrote on his blog in October 2011. “We are way behind!”

Tobbaco products price increased

In a bid to control the rising demand curve, legislation was passed in 2011, increasing the 50 percent import tariff on cigarettes by four fold.

With the increase of import tariff by 200 percent the price of cigarettes doubled, subsequently raising complaints from “tobacco addicts”.

Unlike many countries which already impose strict supply controls and high prices on tobacco products, the Maldives has long enjoyed cheap rates with a pack easily available from shops between Rf18-25 (US$1.16-1.62), subject to brand, while a single cigarette costs one rufiya.

Following rise in import duty in the Maldives, the cheapest brand is available at almost Rf35 (US$2.27) and a single cigarette costs almost two or three rufiya.

By comparision, a pack of cheap cigarettes costs the equivalent of Rf66 in the USA, Rf112 in the UK and Rf158 in Australia.

To understand how the smoking habits have changed since the price hike, Minivan News interviewed five smokers aged between 18-40.

Every respondent claimed the daily number of cigarettes smoked remain unchanged, although one who is 20 years old claimed to have reduced it a “little”.

“I finish a pack [almost 20] everyday,” a 35 year-old said. “It is really difficult since the price has increased but I can’t control it. Sometimes I smoke secretly because my wife does not like it”

However, during the interview which was conducted at a café’, the man cancelled an order for a cigarette pack after the waiter mentioned the price. “It’s way too costly at the restaurants,” he says.

Lizneen, 24, also claims his smoking habits still remain same – almost 10-20 cigarettes per day.

However, he revealed an interesting trend among the smokers: “We don’t share anymore,” he explained. “There are some smokers who take one or two from others, but because it’s expensive now most who buy cigarette packs hide it or do not smoke in front others who ask for smokes. I do that. My friends too”.

Meanwhile, another 28 year-old who spoke to Minivan News said the change in price “brought no change to my demand and habit”.

“I started smoking at the age of 15 to make my Dad angry for abandoning us while we were still studying. I tried to quit for my wife because she did not like it. But I gave up trying because she left me,” he said.

An 18 year-old, who similarly started smoking at a young age, claimed he would “continue to smoke even if the price increases to Rf100”.

“I can’t stop even if I want to. So why try? There is nowhere I can go to get help. I don’t even know where I can get the help,” he said. “Nobody even cares. It’s all politics now.”

Fight continues

Deputy Director at the CCHDC Hassan Mohamed, who also heads the Tobacco Control Unit, observed that tobacco use is  a “global menace” which has been rooted in the Maldives “since our forefathers’ time.”

Laws have been passed to control tobacco use over the generations, with the first to be enacted in 1942, while the latest Tobacco Act passed through the existing parliament in 2010.

However, Mohamed argues that “law itself does not solve the issue” and it is the implementation, collaboration and taking initiative that will help to make the Maldives “tobacco free”.

Acknowledging that the existing Tobacco Control Act is “weak” and has “limitations” that have to be bridged by legislation which are now under review, he pointed out that the laws are adequate and the fight against tobacco can be continued.

He added that the rise in cigarette prices has been a “positive move” and will reduce demand in the long run, acting as a heavy barrier to the recruitment of new or potential smokers.

“Affordability is the key factor that determines smoking habits. When the price increases, depending on the threshold, research has shown that smokers do tend to quit,” Mohamed observed. “Since the price hike, we have received phone calls from the islands and to our office from people asking for help to quit smoking.”

Meanwhile, he said that the introduction of four pieces of legislation currently under review would provide more control over the tobacco supply chain, with zero advertising, strict packaging guidelines and heavy penalties in addition to enhanced protection of second-hand smokers with the banning of smoking in stated public areas.

“The legislation would prohibit sale of single cigarettes,” he claimed, pointing out that Health Ministry requires support from other authorities as it had limited jurisdiction over businesses.

He observed initiatives to treat tobacco addicts are limited and an increased effort is required through civil society and community.

Work is also underway to provide quit smoking services, targeted to begin this year. “We have already trained some people. We will soon open a cessation clinic in Male’ and run a four month pilot project,” Mohamed added.

However, he says the Maldives  is facing a “global menace” with multi billion dollar multinationals deliberately exploiting consumers health and well-being to make profits.

“We must keep in mind that in the Maldives we are also fighting against a multi-billion dollar industry. There will be pressures from the global arena and from factors exclusive to Maldives,” Mohamed said. “But we can fight it.”