Advocates propose graphic warnings on Chinese cigarettes

April 2, 2012

BEIJING – To help smokers drop the habit, anti-smoking advocates in China are making new efforts to replace the aesthetically appealing designs of cigarette packs with images of diseased human organs. To date, the country has an estimated of 300 million smokers, of which only 23.2% of adults believe that tobacco can cause strokes, heart attack and lung cancer. Last year, about 110 billion packs of cigarettes were sold in China in 2011, a 29% increase from 2004.

Lawmakers and political advisors supporting this initiative propose to put graphic health warnings on cigarette packs, similar those found in other countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. The graphic warning labels typically picture gangrenous toes, diseased lungs and damaged hearts, an abrupt contrast to the beautiful mountains, rivers and historical sites often pictured on Chinese cigarette packs.

“People have the right to accurate information about the harm of smoking through health warning labels on tobacco products,” Ma Li, a deputy to the National People’s Congress (NPC), said on the sidelines of the ongoing sessions of China’s top legislature and political advisory body.

A July 2011 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that graphic health warning labels featured in tobacco packaging and mass media campaigns have both been shown to reduce tobacco use. In a related research, large graphic health warning labels on tobacco packaging can effectively influence people’s emotional reactions, increasing their desire to quit smoking and catching the attention of teenagers, children and people who cannot read, said Dr. Sarah England, a former technical officer at the Tobacco Free Initiative of the WHO Representative Office in China.

“Packaging labels are the easiest, most effective and most direct way to warn about smoking. Large graphic images are very effective at keeping would-be smokers at bay, especially young people,” said Ma, who is also director of the NPC’s Education, Science, Culture and Health Committee.

“If graphic warning labels are printed on cigarette packs, it’s as effective as printing 110 billion health pamphlets every year,” said Shen Jinjin, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the city of Yancheng in east China’s Jiangsu province.

In 2003, China signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and made it effective in 2006. It also pledged to fulfill its FCTC obligations before 2011. Article 11 of the FCTC requires health warning labels on tobacco packaging to be approved by a “competent national authority.” It also specifies that the labels should cover no less than 30% or more of the face of the cigarette packaging and be “large, clear, visible and legible.”

However, cigarettes sold on the Chinese mainland still lack pictures and specific warnings.
“The only improvement in China’s commitment to the WHO’s FCTC on packaging are the ambiguous warnings ‘smoking is harmful to your health’ and ‘quitting smoking reduces health risks’ that have been printed on the front of cigarette packs since October 2008,” said Wu Yiqun, executive vice director of the Thinktank Research Center for Health Development. Wu added that the size of the warning’s text is small and does not contrast strongly with the color of the packaging.

“The ambiguous warnings cannot convey the message that the use of tobacco brings about considerable health risks,” Jin Dapeng, a national political advisor and vice head of the China Health Law Society, said in a proposal submitted to the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Cigarette packaging has been a frontline in the battle being waged between tobacco companies and health organisations. Tobacco gift culture is a major obstacle for tobacco control in China. In China, cigarettes are a symbol of social status and are often given as gifts. However, anti-tobacco groups believe that printing graphic health warnings on packages will help to change this custom.

According to a WHO report, 42 countries now have graphic warning labels for tobacco packaging. Only 18 countries had such warnings in place in 2008. Tobacco continues to be the leading cause of preventable death worldwide, killing nearly 6 million people every year. Every year, 1.2 million people in China die from smoking-related diseases.

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