Low-tar cigarette lawsuit not over, as campaigner vows to keep up health fight

Li Enze vows to keep fighting tobacco industry over its health claims

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 6:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 6:13am

Li Enze has modest hopes for his lawsuit accusing a mainland cigarette maker of false advertising. He's under no illusions about the clout of the tobacco industry.

Li is suing manufacturer China Tobacco Jiangxi Industrial (CTJI) and a Beijing supermarket that sold him a 10-pack carton of Jinsheng cigarettes in March last year. He is seeking 250 yuan, or about twice the cost of the carton, arguing that their claim the low-tar cigarettes with Chinese herbs are a safer option than regular ones amounts to false advertising.

After losing the initial case, Li filed an appeal to a Beijing court. But on Friday the court upheld the lower court's ruling.

Li said yesterday that he would not give up.

"I told the defence lawyer of the tobacco company that they will be busy again soon because I will apply to Beijing high court to hear the case again. If I still lose, then I will appeal to the supreme court."

Even getting the initial case heard was unprecedented. It was the first time a claim against a tobacco company had been accepted by a mainland court. All previous attempts had failed.

"I was told the case was accepted as a usual commercial fraud case. It was too late by the time they realised it was a case for tobacco control. I was told it might not be easy to get such a lawsuit accepted by a court in Beijing again," Li said.

Li faces a powerful opponent. The tobacco industry is state-owned and falls under the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration.

The industry generated 816.1 billion yuan in taxes last year, a near 14 per cent increase year on year, and it is growing at about 30 per cent annually. It produced 495 billion cigarettes in 2012, and next year aims to produce 80 billion low-tar cigarettes.

Low-tar cigarettes became controversial following research by Xie Jianping, who worked at an institute under CTJI. Xie was made a fellow of the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2011 for his study into reducing the health hazards of tobacco by lowering tar content. Some scientists say his research contradicts international health standards.

Xie is also vice-president of Zhengzhou Tobacco Research Institute under the China National Tobacco Corporation.

The hearing in the Haidian District People's Court started in August last year with both sides arguing over whether the health claim for low-tar cigarettes amounted to fraud.

Li submitted a report by the then Ministry of Health in 2012. It said lowering tar content or adding herbs to cigarettes did not reduce health hazards of smoking.

"To me the verdict has many flaws, one being the accusation that I paid a notary fees to record the evidence," Li said.

"I don't know about winning but definitely I won't settle, unless they issue a statement admitting it was false publicity," Li said.

Wang Zhenyu, Li's lawyer and director of Beijing Impact Law Firm, doubted they would win "because the tobacco industry is too powerful". But Wang said the case was not solely about winning.

It was significant the public had been made aware that "low tar is not less hazardous".

Li is also suing the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration for failing to satisfactorily release information about its tobacco-control efforts over the past 10 years. The case was rejected by the Beijing No 1 Intermediate People's Court last year, but the Beijing Higher People's Court ruled it should be heard.