Office mulls packaging curbs on cigarettes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 August, 2010, 12:00am

Plain packaging of cigarettes is among options the government is looking at to exert further pressure on the tobacco industry following a ban on duty-free cigarettes and extensions to smoke-free areas.

But authorities will first draw on overseas experience, including in Australia, which in April became the first country to pass plain-packaging legislation for tobacco.

Under the Australian law, tobacco companies will only be able to print their brand names in a standard font, colour and size on cigarette packages (pictured below) from July 1, 2012. The only picture that can appear on the package is a graphic health warning.

Tobacco Control Office head Dr Ronald Lam Man-kin (pictured) said academic studies proved that plain packaging successfully reduced some people's urge to smoke. 'This is one of the directions we will keep in view. We understand that it will involve many issues, such as trademark and copyright, so we will learn from overseas experience first,' he said.

Dr Judith Mackay, senior adviser to the World Lung Foundation and a policy adviser to the World Health Organisation, said plain packaging could de-glamorise smoking by removing recognisable colours, logos and inducements to smoke from the packet.

She expected that it would be hard to implement such a policy in Hong Kong, because it would probably face a legal challenge from the tobacco industry.

'But if the tobacco industry protests, it must mean that the law would have an impact. If the industry doesn't 'scream', then a measure is probably not worth taking,' she said.

Tobacco Association of Hong Kong executive secretary Deanna Cheung Kin-wah declined to comment on the issue, because the government was only at a very preliminary stage of considering the possibility of imposing plain packaging in the city.

As well as plain packaging, the office will also examine outdoor smoking bans. Lam said that, for example, in Singapore and Canada, smoking was forbidden outside within a certain radius of building entrances.

But he said as that would involve the interests of many parties, the idea was preliminary and they would now 'keep a close eye on international developments'.

He said Hong Kong's tobacco control efforts were working well, as indicated by a University of Hong Kong survey in January and February. Of 1,383 people polled, more than 90 per cent supported the smoking ban, and more than 70 per cent said they inhaled less second-hand smoke in bars and clubs since the extension of the ban to six types of entertainment venues last year.

The survey included 359 smokers, of whom 38 per cent said they smoked less or had given up in the past year. More than half of those who said they smoked less said it was because the smoking ban had made it inconvenient to continue the habit, while 32 per cent said it was because of the 50 per cent increase in tobacco tax last year.

Lam's comments came days after the government implemented a ban on duty-free cigarettes at all border controls last Sunday, and ahead of the extension of the smoking ban to 129 outdoor transport hubs on December 1.

To prepare for the ban, the office will offer talks to station managers in the coming months, briefing them on the exact borders of the smoke-free areas under their management.

Lam said these managers would not be responsible for prosecuting smokers, as this was the job of tobacco control officers. The ban is an extension to last September's measure, which prohibited smoking at 48 covered transport interchanges.

Lam said the office had received 416 complaints about smoking at these hubs since September and issued 159 fixed-penalty tickets.