HONG KONG'S anti-smoking stance hardened yesterday when the Executive Council approved plans to prohibit the sale of cigarettes to youngsters under 18 and ban tobacco advertising in newspapers and magazines. The decision drew strong opposition from the tobacco industry, which claimed it would further curtail commercial freedom, while advertisers and publishers were concerned that their businesses could be badly hit. It is understood that Exco members endorsed a series of Health and Welfare Branch recommendations at their meeting on Tuesday, but they refused to cut tobacco sponsorship. The recommendations adopted include the banning of advertising in publications and for display on billboards, and prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to under 18s. Other proposals backed by Exco are the mandatory display of signs at restaurants stating whether they have no-smoking areas, and the introduction of health warnings on cigar and pipe tobacco packaging. But the controversial proposal to restrict the use of cigarette brand names in sponsoring public events was not accepted by Exco. A source said the Health and Welfare Department submissions were based on proposals set out in an anti-smoking consultation paper released in August last year. They have to be put to Legislative Councillors for ratification before becoming law. Dr Judith Mackay, a member of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control, welcomed the move to discourage young people from smoking. She said the decision put Hong Kong closer to countries like Singapore, which had banned all kinds of tobacco advertising more than two decades ago. But the executive director of the Tobacco Institute of Hong Kong, Lee Jark-pui, was disappointed and said the decision meant further restrictions on personal and commercial freedom in the territory. Banning tobacco advertising amounted to a control on the way firms conducted their business and how they achieved their income, Mr Lee said. The Government had also ignored the difficulty of enforcing the ban on sales to those under 18, he said. The institute would urge legislators not to rubber-stamp the recommendations by explaining their economic and political implications, he said. The Hong Kong Chinese Press Association's chairman, Hui Pui-ying, said publishers would be hard hit if the advertising ban was endorsed. Mr Hui said the volume of cigarette advertisements in newspapers had surged after a ban on radio and television advertising in December 1990, and in cinemas a year later. Tobacco advertising amounted to 10 per cent of the total volume for the publishing industry, which would mean tens of millions of dollars lost in revenue, he said. Mr Hui questioned the necessity of the ban, claiming that people made up their own mind whether to smoke and were not influenced by advertisements. The vice-chairman of the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents of Hong Kong, Kingsley Smith, said the decision was a step in the wrong direction. He maintained that cigarettes were a legally sold commodity and tobacco firms should have the right to advertise. The association would discuss the matter shortly to decide what action to take.