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Tougher Controls Sought On Smoking Activists Seek Graphic Images On Packets

Raymond Li, SCMP – Feb 18, 2009

Health activists have taken the anti-smoking fight to big tobacco companies with the launch of a campaign to force the firms to print graphic warnings on cigarette packets sold on the mainland.

The Ministry of Health’s National Tobacco Control Office launched an online campaign on Monday to solicit public support for tougher tobacco controls ahead of the annual gatherings of the nation’s legislators and top political advisers.

China signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a World Health Organisation treaty, in 2003 but only began implementing it last month after a grace period. Under the treaty, tobacco manufacturers and importers must state clearly and prominently on cigarette packets sold on the mainland the damage caused by smoking. The text and preferably graphic warnings should take up at least 30 per cent of the pack.

China was given an ash tray as an award at a WHO conference in South Africa last year, an apparent dressing down for the government’s inability to enforce smoking restrictions.

The mainland tobacco industry agreed to redesign packets from the beginning of this year under a new industry regulation introduced in April, but ignored WHO suggestions to include pictures in the warnings, an approach widely adopted by developed countries.

Xinhua quoted tobacco office director Yang Gonghuan as saying that of the 8.4 million people who died on the mainland each year, 12 per cent, or 1 million, died of tobacco-related illnesses such as lung and throat cancer, heart disease and, among newborns, sudden infant death syndrome.

“Smokers are becoming younger so this proportion will soar to one-third by 2050. That means about half of all male smokers will die of smoking-related diseases,” Dr Yang said.

Anti-smoking campaigners including Wu Yiqun, executive vice-director of the Research Centre for Health Development, said the shock value of graphic images – ranging from a skull and crossbones to a picture of yellowed teeth – made them an effective warning.

Professor Wu accused tobacco companies of double standards because some used different packaging for overseas markets. Packs of Shanghai Tobacco’s upmarket Zhonghua brand sold overseas carry a picture of a smoker’s ulcerated foot, he said.

Professor Wu said pushing the industry to minimise the harm of its products was like “demanding a tiger give up its pelt”. She was dismayed by the lack of commitment by the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration.

She was also concerned about its dual role as both regulator and representative of the powerful tobacco companies – firms that often contributed large chunks of revenues to regional governments.

Writing in the Beijing-based Mirror newspaper, Capital University of Economics and Business associate professor Zhang Zhixin said the country had the incentive and financial capacity to cut the government’s financial dependence on the tobacco industry, but added: “The public has good reason to question the sincerity of the government towards tobacco control because the results of such efforts are so poor.”

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