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Tobacco firms decry Hong Kong plan for bigger warnings on packaging

Cigarette producers cite their own research to argue against Hong Kong’s plan for health notices to cover 85 per cent of packaging

Timmy Sung

Dr Kevin Tsui of Clemson University in the US.

Dr Kevin Tsui of Clemson University in the US.

Tobacco companies have asked the Hong Kong government to scrap its plan to enlarge pictorial warnings on cigarette packs from half of the packaging to 85 per cent, citing US research that shows no evidence of oversized warnings reducing smoking.

The study findings came from Dr Kevin Tsui Ka-kin, an associate professor of economics at Clemson University in South Carolina who was commissioned by the Coalition on Tobacco Affairs, an umbrella group of tobacco producers.

“There isn’t a correlation between reducing the number of smokers and enlarging the warning signs,” Tsui said yesterday. He said the number of smokers was little affected after the government first introduced health warnings on packaging in 1994, nor later when the pictures were enlarged in 2000 and 2007. Government figures show a downward trend in the proportion of people who smoke daily, dropping to a low of 10.7 per cent of all smokers aged 15 or above in 2012, the last year for which data is available.

That downward trend was also evident in the United States, where the size of the warnings was not regulated, the researcher said. In Hong Kong, health warnings must cover at least half of the surface of a packet of cigarettes. The Food and Health Bureau wants bigger health notices from early next year. The proposal is up for discussion in the Legislative Council’s health services panel on Monday. A spokeswoman for the coalition criticised the government for failing to consult the industry when proposing the plan. She also said local regulations were already tougher than in neighbouring regions and countries including Taiwan, mainland China and South Korea, and that World Health Organisation guidelines merely specified the warning should be no less than 30 per cent of the packaging.

“If smokers cannot distinguish which brands they want to buy, this may prevent competition,” the spokeswoman said. “In the long run, smokers may turn to cheaper brands or even illicit cigarettes.” Earlier, an anti-smoking group, the Council on Smoking and Health, had said larger notices could educate smokers and the public on the health hazards of smoking, as well as prevent tobacco companies from using cigarette packs for promotion.

The bureau said that, according to the WHO, it was important to rotate health messages and packaging designs to maintain saliency and enhance impact. The proposed amendments would increase the number of warning designs from six to 12, the bureau said. The message, “HKSAR government warning”, would also be replaced by “Tobacco kills up to half of its users” and the cessation hotline number 1833 183.

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