China’s cigarette packages need more graphic warnings like rotting teeth and blackened lungs to replace less effective text labels, say mainland experts backing a WHO-led campaign that has faced resistance from the tobacco industry and some areas of government.
Liang Xiaofeng, vice-director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said graphic warnings may be the most direct and effective way to curb smoking, which gives rise to diseases that “severely threaten public health”.
The World Health Organisation and the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project released a report on Tuesday saying China could bring down the number of smokers with more vivid, large-format warnings on the packaging, Xinhua reported.
Currently, cigarette packs in the country – the world’s biggest tobacco producer and consumer – have labels such as “Smoking is hazardous to your health”, but experts say these text warnings are no longer reducing smoker numbers, without giving specifics.
Dr Bernhard Schwartlnder, a WHO representative in China, told the state news agency that smokers had a better chance of noticing graphic health warnings.
Despite China ratifying the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005, which recommends graphic warnings, among other measures, there has been sluggish government action.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, tasked by the state to lead tobacco control efforts, has stopped short of endorsing graphics such as skeletons and damaged lungs, which have proven effective at deterring cigarette buyers elsewhere.
Canada and most European Union countries have introduced or agreed to introduce graphic labelling, according to the WHO. Australia, meanwhile, has introduced plain packaging - drab and logo-free - for all cigarette brands.
China's government laid down a plan last year to cut the number of smokers to 25 per cent of the population by next year, from 28.1 per cent in 2010. Some cities and provinces have already banned smoking in public places in recent months, but there is little political will to prohibit cigarette ads or switch to graphic packaging.
China accounts for 40 per cent of global cigarette output – a major source of tax revenue. The mainland is one of the few markets in the world that has state-owned monopolies running tobacco production and trade, via the China National Tobacco Corporation.
The country is also the biggest consumer, being home to more than 300 million smokers or almost one-quarter of the global figure.
The WHO has said tobacco is responsible for one million deaths - or 85 per cent of deaths - on the mainland every year. Tobacco is one of the major risk factors in chronic, non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and lung disease.
With additional reporting from Zhang Pinghui, Jane Pong and Bloomberg