A poster showing Hong Kong government mascot Lazy Lion warning people of the deadly dangers of drinking alcohol.
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun

Hong Kong government’s ‘alcohol causes cancer’ campaign contradicts its wish to be a wine hub. So we can distribute, just not drink it, right?

  • Government mascot Lazy Lion is at it again, telling us now, rather emphatically, that ‘ALCOHOL causes CANCER’, on a poster with a wine glass crossed out
  • It’s another example of this administration’s left hand not knowing what the right is doing. Is wine a positive economic growth engine or a health hazard?

There’s a government mascot called the Lazy Lion. They created it in 2020 to encourage sedentary citizens in ads to “fight the virus” and be healthier. The character is defined by an odd spit curl in its mane on the top of its head.

Since then, Lazy Lion has been used to promote all kinds of public health messages, including to sit less, walk more, eat smart, stop smoking and, most recently, to quit drinking.

I was taken aback when I recently saw this poster, with the cartoon lion holding a placard featuring a wine glass crossed out and an emphatic slogan: “ALCOHOL causes CANCER.”

That’s rather dramatic, isn’t it? Yes, if you drink a gallon of 100-proof moonshine in a short period, you’re going to be very ill. Excess use of anything is bad. But lots of studies also say a glass or two of red wine with your meal improves your heart. Has the Lazy Lion joined the ranks of hyperbole propaganda and fake news?

In Hong Kong, wine is duty-free, partly as a result of politicians lobbying for import tax exemption. Photo: Getty Images for Hong Kong Tourism Board

It wasn’t too long ago that politicians lobbied for Hong Kong to be a regional wine hub, dropping all duties and taxes for merchants and traders. And it worked. The sector’s revenue in 2021 was over US$600 million. We are now the biggest wine re-importer into China, a major centre for international wine auctions, and at the forefront of sophisticated oenophile appreciation.

It’s quite a U-turn that the government suddenly thinks this fast-growing market consists of cancer-causing products. What a mixed message. It’s OK to sell and distribute, but don’t drink it yourself. That sounds like the first rule of successful drug dealing: don’t get high on your own supply!

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I assume this is a case of the administration’s left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Perhaps the Department of Health and the Trade and Industry Department are on different floors.

Bureaucrats are also notoriously awkward when it comes to dealing with contentious substances, whether it’s booze or other chemical enhancers. So, is wine a positive economic growth engine or a health hazard? They might need to hold some consultations, do a public survey and talk to Beijing for a judicial review.

Alcohol is not the only dichotomy for governing officials. Tobacco is universally acknowledged to be harmful, but most countries don’t have the guts to ban smoking. The sale of E-cigarettes is now banned here, but actual cigarettes you can still buy everywhere. Maybe nicotine tax revenues are too addictive? Only New Zealand has legislated against cigarettes. The Kiwis plan to outlaw sales to anyone born after 2008.
Hong Kong’s Lazy Lion stop drinking campaign.

Of course, I assume conservative Hong Kong will have no clue how to re-examine something even more controversial like marijuana. Cannabis is perfectly legal for medicinal and recreation use in various progressive, liberal countries. Here, however, it’s still harshly portrayed as a serious drug impairing mental faculties, hurting IQ development, causing anxiety and depression, and heightening respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

To be honest, worse effects will happen to your insides if you smoke a pack a day or regularly do rounds of Mao-tai at business dinners. Nicotine and alcohol are drugs too. Some health experts argue sugar and caffeine are more addictive and toxic to our health than a joint.

Personally, I have never indulged in pot nor do I have any interest to start, but I don’t really think it’s more harmful than other narcotics we legally permit. I’m not saying we should be like Amsterdam tomorrow and decriminalise anything and everything. But if officials can be open-minded about Chinese medicine, why can’t they expand their tolerance to think cannabis might have potential benefits too?

It’s certainly more reasonable than trying to frighten us with a cartoon lion warning that alcohol causes cancer. That’s just silly scaremongering.