Plan to enlarge health warning labels antagonizes tobacco industry

Updated: 2015-06-30 07:08

By Luis Liu in Hong Kong(HK Edition)

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 Plan to enlarge health warning labels antagonizes tobacco industry

Tobacco Control Inspectors carrying out their duties. The government is making plans to enlarge warning signs on cigarette packaging in a bid to reduce the number of smokers. Provided to China Daily

Hong Kong's tobacco industry was up in arms on Monday against a plan by the health authorities to enlarge health warning labels, saying it would not help lower the smoking rate and goes against the interests of tobacco companies.

Major industry players called on the government to withdraw the proposed measures.

The Food and Health Bureau submitted new tobacco control proposals to the Legislative Council (LegCo) in May, calling for the size of graphic health warnings on tobacco products to be enlarged from 50 percent of the two largest surfaces of cigarette packets to 85 percent.

Such a move, it said, would help lower the city's smoking prevalence rate.

The Coalition on Tobacco Affairs (CTA) - made up of 90 percent of the city's tobacco business associations -argued that the plan would not help reduce the number of smokers, based on a study it had commissioned earlier.

After studying statistics from the Census and Statistics Department, Kevin Tsui, an associate professor at the Department of Economics of Clemson University, found that the pre-existing trend of smoking rates did not change after health warning labels had been made bigger.

He had studied the change in the number of daily smokers in Hong Kong since 1982. Three rounds of health warning label enlargement were ordered by the government in 1994, 2000 and 2007, none of which led to a drop in the local smoking rate.

Compared with other places that have not imposed warning labels, no significant difference can be seen.

Tsui compared smoking prevalence data in Hong Kong with that of the United States where no warnings are required on the front or back of cigarette packets. He found the smoking prevalence trends were almost parallel as percentages in both places had been lowered by only 2 to 3 percent in the past 15 years.

Owing to the promotion and education work conducted by the authorities since the 1980s, all Hong Kong residents are fully aware of the negative impact smoking has on health, the CTA saying that a bigger health warning won't help further lower the smoking rate.

According to the latest statistics released in May, Hong Kong's smoking rate now stands at 10.7 percent - 13 percent lower than in 1982.

Regulated by the World Health Organization's (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, warnings and messages on smoking should be 50 percent or more of the principal display areas but shall be no less than 30 percent of the principal display areas. Hong Kong had already reached the standard and the CTA hoped the government would stop increasing the percentage.

The CTA also warned that unintended consequences maybe caused by the change. An 85-percent warning label would cover too much space on the packets, it said, making it harder for consumers to distinguish one brand from another, thus undermining business competition.

Smaller free space for manufacturers may also lead to piracy problems as the anti-counterfeit labels are smaller and easier to fabricate, it said.

Some manufacturers need to give up their original brand designs, the alliance said, and accused the authorities of breaching the city's trademark laws.

At present, only Thailand and Nepal have applied health warning labels of more than 85 percent in size.

The CTA urged the government to review its proposals by conducing more research and consultations and wait for further information from the two countries so that it can use them for reference.

The Council on Smoking and Health (COSH), a statutory body in the city promoting tobacco control and health improvement, felt the opposite. It said the proposal is a right decision to make.

It appeared tough on endorsing the move and urged the government to push for a even tighter control, which includes a unitary packing order with brand names only written in standard fonts. The COSH thought it a "must do" to increase people's awareness of the harm that smoking would do to a person.

The Department of Health said the health warnings are an important part of the city's tobacco control work and do have positive effects.

Under WTO guidelines, the warnings and messages should "cover the cigarette packet as much as possible", a department's spokesman said.

The LegCo's Panel on Health Services will hold a special meeting on July 6 to discuss the issue.

(HK Edition 06/30/2015 page8)