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City Weekend

A burning need to stub out smoking in Hong Kong

Cigarette packs in the city may soon feature bigger health warning labels, as government ramps up measures to get citizens to kick the habit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2017, 2:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 10:40am

Cigarette packs in Hong Kong are set to sport even bigger graphic health warnings as the government ramps up measures to discourage smoking, despite the city seeing the lowest number of smokers in more than 30 years.

A census report in 2015, the latest year such data is available, shows it has around 641,300 smokers aged 15 and above – about 10.5 per cent of its seven million population. This is Hong Kong’s lowest rate since 1982.

Still, the Hong Kong government is getting tougher on the habit. Next Wednesday, the Legislative Council will discuss several amendments to the Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance, including increasing the size of health warnings on cigarette packaging from the current 50 per cent to at least 85 per cent, and the different types of warnings from six to 12.

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The ordinance was first enacted in 1982, but over the years, it saw several changes on health warning requirements:

1983 Health warnings were required for displays of cigarette advertisements. They must also be printed on packets of cigarettes and retail containers in English and Chinese.

1994 The variety of health warning messages increased, from one message to four different types. Health warnings in cigarette advertisements must be displayed more conspicuously than in the past, while warnings on outdoor ads had to be clearly visible.

1995 All containers and packaging of tobacco products shall display prescribed health warnings and shall be rotated in a prescribed manner. Any tobacco product without a prescribed health warning will be confiscated.

2000 Cigarette packs must carry, in rotation, six new health warnings, with indications of tar and nicotine yields. Health warnings must be featured on the top of pack, using black lettering on a white background.

2007 A significant change among those introduced this year was accompanying health warnings with six different types of graphic images on cigarette packs, with a requirement for the graphic warning to cover at least 50 per cent of the packet’s surface.

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Hong Kong’s smoking rate is one of the lowest in Asia. Singapore, whose population stands at five million, has a 13 per cent rate. Meanwhile, there are more than 20 million smokers in Japan, which equals to 19.3 per cent of its 120 million population.

Based on overseas samples, the Food and Health Bureau in Hong Kong said, warnings are particularly effective when combined with information designed to boost users’ motivation to quit.

So, what are other countries doing on cigarette packaging to deter people from smoking?

Australia became the first country to fully implement plain packaging in December 2012.

All outer surfaces of tobacco retail packaging are in the specified drab, dark brown colour, with a matte finish. Tobacco industry logos, brand imagery, colours and promotional text are not allowed on tobacco products and retail packaging. Packets must only feature the brand names which must appear in a standard colour, position, font style and size.

Japan requires warnings on cigarette packs to describe the harmful effects of tobacco use on health. The health warnings should also take up 30 per cent of the surface of tobacco packages. Terms which imply the product is less harmful than others, such as “low tar”, “light”, “ultra light”, or “mild” are allowed.

The United Kingdom was the second country in the world to pass legislation on standardised packaging after Australia. Cigarettes must be sold in standardised green packaging bearing graphic warnings of the dangers of smoking. All packs must contain at least 20 cigarettes to make sure they are big enough for health warnings – which must cover 65 per cent of the front and back of packs. The brand names are also restricted to a standard size, font and colour.

Singapore is set to ban the point-of-sale display of tobacco products in August. This means that general tobacco retailers will be required to use plain, undecorated storage devices to keep tobacco products on their premises out of the direct line of sight of the public and potential customers. A text-only price list, which must fulfil the Singapore Ministry Of Health’s requirements, may be shown, but only upon the request of customers.

Sources: The Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, the World Health Organisation, Singapore’s Ministry of Health and Australia’s Department of Health.