Elegant packaging deflates tobacco control efforts

Updated: 2010-11-15 16:21
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BEIJING - Zhou Daqing, 35, had been smoking for 10 years. But he did not have the courage to light up again after seeing the warning on the packing of the cigarettes his friend bought in Hong Kong for him.

"Smoking can lead to impotence. Man! How come I never saw this warning these last 10 years?" said Zhou, who has recently given up smoking.

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China received a Dirty Ashtray Award from the NGO Framework Convention Alliance after China's representatives made excuses for not printing warning pictures on cigarette packing at the third Conference of the Parties of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) in 2008.

The fourth contracting parties conference of WHO FCTC will be on Monday in Uruguay, and anti-tobacco campaigners are worried China might receive another Dirty Ashtray Award.

There are no warning pictures and specific words of warning on cigarette packs on the Chinese mainland.

The article concerning the printing of warning pictures on cigarette packaging in the FCTC was supposed to take effect before Jan 9, 2009, in China, Jiang Yuan, a deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Xinhua Monday.

The only improvement in China's commitment to the WHO FCTC on packaging was the ambiguous warning "Smoking is Harmful" that is printed on the front of packets of cigarettes, not the sides, Jiang Yuan said.

But the size of the text of the warning is small and it does not contrast strongly with the color of the packaging, Jiang added.

China signed the WHO FCTC agreement in 2003. The convention stipulates that the consequences of smoking must be clearly and strikingly stated on packaging of tobacco and that the words and pictures take up no less than 30 percent of the entire packaging space.

Images of bleeding brains, blackened teeth and rotten lungs are visible on the cigarette packs in Thailand, Australia, Canada and other countries, said Wu Yiqun, executive vice director of the Thinktank Research Center for Health Development.

"Exported Chinese tobacco has different packaging from that sold in domestic markets," Wu said, showing a pack of Chunghwa cigarettes for overseas consumers with a picture of a smoker's ulcerated foot. On the domestic pack, there is no such picture.

Putting health warning pictures on tobacco packaging is supposed to be one of the most cost-effective ways to increase public awareness of the serious health risks associated with tobacco consumption. An International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project survey with 1,169 respondent smokers in four cities of China in 2008 showed that cigarette packs with warning pictures were twice as effective in helping people quit smoking compared to boxes with no text.

The warning pictures deliver a strong message and are effective in reaching illiterate people, Wu said, noting that many smokers in China live in remote and impoverished areas.

Statistics show China has more than 300 million smokers. Smoking takes 23.7 million rural residents into poverty every year, as smoking takes up 6 percent to 11 percent of their expenditures.

Anti-tobacco fighters believe printing warning pictures on cigarette packets will change the Chinese custom of giving cigarettes as gifts.

A survey by China CDC in 20 provinces in 2008 showed that 90 percent of its 16,000 respondents would not give cigarettes as gifts if there were disgusting and horrible pictures printed on their packaging.

With pretty pictures like Mount Tai and Tian'anmen Square, cigarettes are a symbol of social status and often given as gifts in China.

The tobacco gift culture is a major obstacle for tobacco control in China.

China could improve its warnings to include graphic images of the harm tobacco does, Sarah England, a technical officer at the Tobacco Free Initiative of the WHO Representative Office in China, said.

This would educate people about the specific diseases and disabilities caused by tobacco while simultaneously making cigarettes an unattractive object to give as a gift, England added.

China's tobacco control authorities sought netizens' support to urge producers to print warning pictures on cigarette packaging, in an effort to set the agenda ahead of parliamentary and political advisory sessions this year.

More than 1.42 million netizens voiced their support for putting pictorial warnings on cigarette packages in the two weeks after the online survey began.

"We got the reply recently. The authorities refused our proposal. They said they would make the warnings on the front larger and print warnings on the back of the packs in minority languages," Wu said.

Experts say it is China's tobacco monopoly system that makes putting warning pictures on cigarette packaging difficult, as China's State Tobacco Monopoly Administration is both the tobacco producer and the regulator responsible for tobacco control.

"There is no way that tobacco control and the development of the tobacco industry can be properly done by the same department," Jiang Yuan said.

High-end cigarettes and those given as gifts contribute significantly to the tobacco industry's profits and taxes. If disgusting pictures appear on the packs, there will be no market for these cigarettes, said Hu Linlin, a doctor at the Chinese Academy of Engineering Sciences.

Now, some 23 countries print large warning pictures on cigarette packs. But smokers in 90 percent of countries and regions in the world still don't see such warnings.

There is still much to be done for tobacco control in China, and around the world, Wu Yiqun, said.