Tobacco merchants of death are killing a bid to save lives in Hong Kong

Yonden Lhatoo is appalled by what the tobacco industry and its political allies are doing to stop the government from upgrading warnings on cigarette packets

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 April, 2017, 3:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 10:45am

I was at a 7-Eleven convenience store the other day when two young women walked in to buy cigarettes. There was a bit of a hold-up at the counter because they wanted the packet with the least repulsive graphic warning label.

After some back and forth with a store clerk who was both amused and annoyed, they finally settled for one that didn’t remind them too much of what their internal organs will look like when smoking finally kills or maims them.

They, like many smokers in our city, may not be aware of it, but a suffocating war – unprecedented in skullduggery and Machiavellian manipulation – is being fought over their health in the city’s legislature. I’m talking about Hong Kong’s bid to slap bigger warning labels as well as more warnings on cigarette packs, along with a hotline number to help smokers quit.

Hong Kong is one of more than 100 jurisdictions to have put graphic warning labels on cigarette packets, but has fallen far behind many of its peers as there has been no upgrade since it started the practice in 2007.

The government finally tabled an amendment bill in the Legislative Council on Wednesday to increase the size of the warning label from 50 per cent to 85 per cent of every cigarette packet. Sounds simple enough, but try getting it passed by an already deeply divided legislature being lobbied and pressured, no holds barred, by powerful vested interests.

What’s there to be so afraid of? Public opinion is in favour of clearer and tougher warnings on cigarette packs

One of the world’s foremost anti-tobacco advocates, the irrepressible Judith Mackay, broke it down for me.

“The process has been toxic – I’ve never, in the last three decades, seen such opposition, lobbying or filibustering of a tobacco bill in Legco,” she said. “An army of tobacco executives, lawyers and their allies have descended on Hong Kong to try to obstruct, delay and prevent the legislation going through. One veteran legislator confided to me that he, too, had never witnessed such intense lobbying on any topic. He said that he himself felt the pressure and that this was having a ‘chilling effect’ on even those who were supportive of the bill.”

That’s quite something, coming from a tobacco-control expert whose global and Hong Kong-based campaigning against smoking has earned her death threats, offers of 24-hour police protection and the label of one of three “most dangerous people in the world” by the industry.

She also introduced me this week to another prominent anti-tobacco expert, Geoff Fong, who has been citing solid research evidence showing the effectiveness of bigger warning labels and the need to revise them so that the desired impact does not wear out.

Hong Kong’s plan for bigger health warnings on cigarette packs is backed by solid research

Mackay’s rhetorical question summed it up: “With about 7,000 deaths a year from smoking in Hong Kong, should the tobacco industry and a few legislators be blocking a public health measure that involves no cost to government, and which works, and which will save lives?”

If the government’s inability to really take on the merchants of death stems from its lack of both will and political backing in the face of their money and influence, the maths still demands a far tougher approach. The cost of smoking to Hong Kong is estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars every year, dwarfing the amount it reaps from tobacco duty.

What’s there to be so afraid of? Public opinion is in favour of clearer and tougher warnings on cigarette packs – 80 per cent of non-smokers, ex-smokers and smokers themselves support the move, according to the last count.

Probably not those two young women at the 7-Eleven counter fussing over the aesthetics of warning labels on their cigarette packets, but hey, there’s no denying the impact.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post