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Gruesome pictorial warnings could save millions of smokers’ lives

On March 16, 2016, last day of the two sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Duan Tieli, deputy director of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA), also a deputy to the NPC, told the media that China had no plans to increase pictorial warnings on cigarette packages since such photos of smokers’ darkened teeth and rotten lungs or images of skulls were not consistent with “traditional Chinese cultural values.”

Duan may not have known but in 2008, when WHO conducted its third session of signature countries that had signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a great majority of those countries had already passed the resolution that cigarette packages should carry pictorial warnings as required.

Meanwhile, however, a Chinese delegate representing the STMA argued that Chinese cigarette packages can only display pictures of famous mountains and great rivers to reflect traditional Chinese historical and cultural heritage, instead of showing ugly pictures to humiliate and disrespect the Chinese people.

As soon as this remark was made, the speaker was booed off-stage and that night all deputies at the session passed a resolution to give China the Dirty Ashtray Award, stating that China had not supported the requirement of displaying pictorial warnings on cigarette packages and that it had mocked the FCTC rules by showing beautiful pictures at the cost of public health.

Furthermore, by May 2015, 85 countries globally had already adopted the practice of showing pictorial warnings on cigarette packages, including many Asian countries and regions such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, etc. China has been left far behind.

Peng Liyuan, the first lady of China, has made her concerns and commitment for tobacco control public. She became an ambassador for tobacco control in 2009. In 2012, to support World No-Tobacco Day activities, Peng and Bill Gates were dressed in red shirts printed with a slogan against passive smoking. They joined hands to promote the rights of non-smokers and practices for a smoke-free environment.

Actually, displaying pictorial warnings on cigarette packages happens to be the most effective, direct, and expense-saving approach to help smokers quit smoking. This is also required by the FCTC, in order to confront all smokers with a graphic design that discourages smoking.

In March 2009, I attended the 14th World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Mumbai, India. At the site, I was interviewed by reporters and presented my idea at a discussion group session that pictorial warnings would serve three distinct and meaningful purposes, “to discourage smokers from smoking themselves; to make it improper for them to share cigarettes with others; and to render it impossible to use cigarettes as a gift to VIPs, superiors, and others.”

Consequently, the practice of having pictorial warnings on cigarette packages is a must. One thing remains clear and that is the Chinese government and its legislative branch should work together to make this happen and thus deliver urgently needed services to the people to improve their health conditions.

Finally, the STMA, under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, should fulfill its mission of tobacco control instead of looking to boost its own profits.

Tobacco control, which benefits China and its people as a whole, deserves a great push immediately and forcefully. Adding pictorial warnings on cigarette packages is a necessity and an effective approach to facilitate the whole process.

The author is a tobacco control specialist and current affairs commentator for CCTV News. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

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