Display boxes for cigarettes may be illegal

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 November, 2009, 12:00am

Display boxes showing cigarette packets replaced banners and posters at newspaper stands yesterday, as tobacco advertisements disappeared across Hong Kong in the final phase of the cigarette advertising ban.

But the government said the display boxes could be regarded as advertisements and it would consider prosecution. Both vendors and smokers said the ban would not affect how many cigarette packets they bought or sold.

Tobacco advertisements have been banned in newspapers, magazines, radio, television and public spaces since the 1990s, but newspaper stands and hawkers were exempted until yesterday.

In Causeway Bay, large display boxes equipped with spotlights were observed at almost all newspaper stands. Packets of cigarettes were seen revolving inside the boxes.

Ms Chim, a vendor, said tobacco companies helped her renovate the stand by adding the display boxes, and were still paying her about HK$3,000 a month in 'advertising fees', even though her posters and banners had disappeared. But display boxes were not advertisements, she said. 'It is not an advertisement if there are no words.' Chim said it would be 'unreasonable' if display boxes were regarded as advertisements. 'Either they ban smoking altogether or they should allow us to display packets. Otherwise, how do people know we sell cigarettes?'

She said cigarette sales dropped 40 per cent after the government stepped up tobacco control measures in the past year.

Ms Li, another vendor, said she was worried that display boxes could constitute advertisements, even though 'they do not encourage smoking'. 'Not everyone pays attention to adverts. There are commercials asking people to quit drugs, but we still have drug abusers,' she said.

Liu Sair-ching, the chairman of the Coalition of Hong Kong Newspaper and Magazine Merchants, said cigarette sales made up one-third of their total business. Stalls should be allowed to have the display boxes 'in order to tell people that we are selling legal products', he said.

Mr Wan, a 59-year-old smoker, said the advertising ban would not stop him. 'For decades, I have been buying a packet a day. Nothing can change this habit,' he said.

A government spokesman said the display boxes could contravene the Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance if the packets were displayed in a way that 'induces or suggests people to buy tobacco'. Offenders are liable to a fine up to HK$50,000 and a further HK$1,500 penalty per day if the offence continues.

According to the American Cancer Society, the proportion of Hong Kong primary school pupils who could recognise different cigarette brands dropped from 95 per cent in 1990 to 20 per cent in 2001 after the advertising ban began.