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July 12th, 2011:

Better to be blunt to combat tobacco

South China Morning Post – 12 July 2011

The campaign against smoking has come full circle in Hong Kong with a return to emphasis on the health risks highlighted in the mid-1990s. In the meantime, anti-tobacco advocates have won a long battle against passive smoking by having the habit banned in indoor public areas including restaurants and bars, and pressured the government into raising the tax on cigarettes to 70 per cent of the price of a packet, just short of the 75 per cent recommended by the World Health Organisation. And only an estimated one in eight or 12 per cent of Hongkongers still smoke.

But after years of subtle messages supportive of people wanting to quit, it has been judged time to refocus people’s minds on the harmful effects of smoking with explicit messages. The Tobacco Control Office will roll out fresh television advertisements next year, after being briefed on latest research by the World Lung Foundation. As one of its executives wrote in the Post last week, the foundation has tested campaign material in 12 countries and found that clear, blunt messages about how tobacco harms people are effective everywhere.

At the end of the day, as anti-smoking laws and tax increases show, sometimes only governments have the power and deep enough pockets to take on Big Tobacco. In that respect Hong Kong has an interest in a challenge by tobacco giant Philip Morris to the Australian government’s attempt to be the first to enforce plain, brandless packaging of cigarettes featuring only graphic health warnings. Philip Morris accuses Canberra of breaching a bilateral investment treaty with Hong Kong, where the company’s Asian arm is based, which it claims commits Canberra to protect investment in Australia by local investors and vice versa. The move faces numerous potential domestic and international legal challenges to defend intellectual property. Politically, however, there is an argument that so long as the majority has to fund the health costs of the smoking minority, governments and lawmakers have a duty to support measures to curb tobacco use