HK Marlboro Lights not so light
Anti-smoking groups cry foul, but Philip Morris says popular cigarette contains more nicotine and tar than British or Japanese equivalents because it's what consumers want
Hong Kong's most popular brand of cigarettes contains more nicotine and tar than equivalents sold in Britain or Japan, leading to fears that the city's smokers could be exposing themselves to greater health risks.
But a US study just published in Britain suggests the higher tar and nicotine content of Marlboro Lights in the city - and on the mainland - may not carry an appreciably higher health risk.
Expert opinion differs and anti-smoking groups have claimed that the tobacco industry is manipulating public health.
A Hong Kong spokeswoman for Philip Morris, which owns and manufactures the popular Marlboro brand globally, said the disparity in tar levels for its 'Lights' cigarette was in response to consumer preference and different regulatory tar-level ceilings across countries.
'There may be differences in taste preferences from place to place. The amount of tar determines the strength of the cigarette, and we will manufacture according to the consumer preference in that particular country,' she said.
A packet of the Marlboro Lights sold in Hong Kong and across the border in Shenzhen contains 8mg of tar per cigarette, while those sold in Britain, Korea, Japan, and Australia contain only 6mg. US-sold Marlboro Lights contain 11mg of tar, those in Singapore 9mg.
The level of nicotine also varies across countries. Hong Kong-sold Marlboro Lights contain 0.6mg per stick, while some other countries contain only 0.5mg.
Anthony Hedley, a professor of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong and a former chairman of the Hong Kong Council of Smoking and Health, insists that cigarette companies are exploiting the different legislative ceiling for tar and nicotine levels to maximise profit.
'Cigarettes with higher nicotine concentration recruit people to addiction more quickly. In particular, young people are sensitive to nicotine, so if they get big doses up front then it may well recruit them to nicotine addiction more quickly.'
He also said cigarettes with higher dosages of tar and nicotine made it harder for people to quit.
Judith Mackay, a director for the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control, said it was important for tobacco companies to provide a full list of ingredients on packets.
'They themselves decide how much nicotine the cigarette has. They are manipulating and I think there needs to be disclosure.'
But experts agree it is difficult to tell whether smoking a slightly higher tar cigarette constitutes a greater health risk.
A US study just published in the British Medical Journal found that those who smoke low or very low tar cigarettes (less than 7mg) are at as much risk of dying from lung cancer as medium tar (15-21mg) smokers.
This has been attributed to 'compensatory smoking', whereby smokers increase the amount of nicotine taken in through a single cigarette by blocking the ventilation pinholes and by puffing on the cigarette more deeply and frequently.
A study conducted by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention published last June found that not only did Marlboro cigarettes around the world contain significantly higher levels of carcinogens than popular local alternatives, but the levels of carcinogens also differed across borders.