Hong Kong government’s stance on tobacco health warnings goes against WHO guidelines

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2017, 11:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2017, 10:45pm

The Hong Kong government has proposed to amend health warnings on tobacco packets to comply with World Health Organisation standards and international practices.

A better-known proposal among the public is to increase the size of warnings to 85 per cent of the surface of tobacco packets. But what is intriguing is the government’s insistence on retaining the display of the tar and nicotine yields, despite international guidelines and expert advice.

Under the WHO guidelines for implementing Article 11 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, contracting parties (including Hong Kong) should not require quantitative statements on product packaging and labelling about tobacco constituents and emissions that might imply that one brand is less harmful than another, such as the tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide figures.

The Legislative Council’s panel on health services has discussed the government proposals since last December, and held a public hearing in January for stakeholders and members of the public to express their views. Legislators have questioned Food and Health Bureau officials more than once on why the government has not adopted WHO’s suggestion of removing displays of tar and nicotine yields on cigarette packaging.

In the panel meeting on February 28, Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Alice Mak Mei-kuen and Liberal Party lawmaker Peter Shiu Ka-fai raised the question again, but the bureau official simply said that, given the government’s “progressive approach”, it is necessary to retain the indication of tar and nicotine yields to make the public aware of the existence of such substances that are harmful to health.

It’s no novelty for the government to seek some expert advice before implementing any public policy proposals. It could have simply consulted Professor Judith Mackay, who has lived in Hong Kong for decades and should be easily reached. Professor Mackay was the first executive director of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health and a senior WHO policy adviser. She co-authored a book on tobacco control, in which she said that information on tar and nicotine yields, which could be misleading, should be removed from cigarette packaging.

If Food and Health Bureau officials genuinely wanted their health warning proposals to raise public awareness of the harm caused by smoking and of the incentives to quit, why would they insist on keeping misleading information on cigarette packets, regardless of WHO guidelines, expert advice and our lawmakers’ inquiries? The bureau should provide better justifications for this, or take international guidelines and expert advice seriously and propose to remove this information from packaging.

Grace Chan, Fanling