'Scarier' cigarette packet warnings and ban on e-cigarettes mooted in Hong Kong

Messages on packets will be more graphic, and government will also ban e-cigarettes and extend no-smoking areas to help people kick the habit

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 April, 2015, 1:47am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 April, 2015, 1:11pm

Warnings on cigarette packets that "smoking kills" are not scary enough, according to new government proposals under which tobacco products will labelled with even more frightening content, a health official says.

Other new measures include expanding no-smoking areas and a citywide ban on the sale of electronic cigarettes, said Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee, undersecretary of the Food and Health Bureau.

These proposals are expected to be presented to the Legislative Council this year.

One of the bureau's main goals is to expand the size of the health warning, which now covers about 50 per cent of the pack, and to replace them with "scarier" messages targeted at female and young smokers.

Those currently in place had been criticised as not scary enough, Chan said. "They have been in use since 2006, and the government believes it is time to update the content," she said.

According to the Department of Health, the proportion of people who smoke daily has seen a downward trend, with a low of 10.7 per cent in 2012, the last year for which data is available. But while that is one of the lowest in the world, Chan said "we shouldn't be proud", and should continue trying to reduce it.

Many countries such as Thailand and Canada have enhanced the warnings by having them cover 60 to 80 per cent of each pack. In late 2012, Australia issued the world's toughest warning - by replacing all of the branding labels with warnings that cover the whole packet.

Antonio Kwong Cho-shing, chairman of the city's anti-smoking watchdog the Council on Smoking and Health, said Hong Kong should do the same.

But Chan said the city may not decide to go quite so far, and the size of the health warning would be open for public discussion.

She also highlighted the importance of enhancing the warning message targeting female smokers. Bucking the citywide trend, the number of women who smoke has risen 70 per cent between 1990 and 2012, from 56,100 to 96,800 - although women accounted for just 3.1 per cent of all smokers in 2012.

"Women smoke for a different reason, usually due to psychological reasons such as stress and depression. Some believe it helps in losing weight. Since they are more aware of their appearances, the messages can target how tobacco would affect their skin texture or [make them look] older."

Chan said the new warning would also highlight the health risk for parents exposing their children to second- and third-hand smoke.

But the Coalition on Tobacco Affairs, made up of representatives from tobacco companies, objected to the move and said current warnings were sufficient. A spokeswoman said there was no evidence that oversized warnings reduced smoking, and said the move would harm the intellectual property rights of tobacco companies.

The government's push to enhance the warning labels followed its decision not to raise the tobacco tax this year. Chan said a tax increase would be considered again in the next fiscal year.