Bigger graphic health warnings on Hong Kong cigarette packs needed, anti-smoking group says

Survey finds most in favour of move, which advocates say can protect public health and encourage more to quit habit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 6:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 7:04pm

An anti-smoking body has pressed the government to speed up legislation on cigarette pack health warnings after a survey revealed almost 80 per cent of people desired sterner messages on smoking risks.

The Council on Smoking and Health made the call ahead of another public hearing held on Tuesday in the Legislative Council to collect views on whether to implement the law.

The legislation will expand the size of health warnings on cigarette packs from the current 50 per cent to 85 per cent of the packaging surface.

The proposal was first submitted by the government in May 2015, and the first hearing was held in July in the same year.

According to a survey commissioned by the council and done between February and September last year, 79.5 per cent of 2,058 respondents – comprising smokers, non-smokers and ex-smokers – want cigarette packs to show clearer and more graphic warnings.

Another 72.5 per cent of them also want to see the graphic warnings enlarged to cover 85 per cent of the packaging surface, a move also supported by almost half of the smokers in the survey.

“The implementation work has dragged on for one and a half years. This measure can protect public health and help more people quit smoking.

“We hope that Legco will not procrastinate on the legislation any further,” council chairman Antonio Kwong Cho-shing said.

He said that Australia recorded a drop of 2.2 percentage points in average smoking rate after introducing plain cigarette packaging in 2012.

Genetic damage from smoking measured for the first time

Of this amount, 0.55 percentage points, or 108,000 fewer smokers, were due directly to the new measure which only allowed brand names to be displayed in a standard font size, colour and position on the packaging, thereby making them less conspicuous and seemingly less desirable.

Professor Judith Mackay, a veteran tobacco control advocate and senior policy advisor for the World Health Organisation, said a larger graphic warning would have an even bigger visual impact and induce more smokers to quit.

According to a Canadian Cancer Society survey which studied the effectiveness of health warnings on cigarette packs worldwide, Hong Kong ranked 72nd out of 205 places.

“We used to be among the top 12 jurisdictions [in cigarette pack warnings] ... now we are lagging very far behind from the international experience,” Mackay said. She has been working on tobacco control advocacy in the city for more than 30 years.

The survey done by the Canadian group looked at various factors, including whether graphic warnings existed on the packaging design, the sizes of the images and when the warnings were introduced.

Mackay attributed the city’s poor ranking partly to outdated warnings, which were first introduced in 2007, and the lack of information on helpline numbers for those seeking to quit the habit.

She said in the long run the government should also further increase tobacco tax to make cigarettes less affordable.

Kwong from the Council on Smoking and Health said it submitted a letter to the financial secretary late last year to suggest increasing tobacco tax to 100 per cent.