Frontline tobacco retailers make last ditch call against graphic health warning enlargement

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Representative of newspaper stalls says the move will only make it more difficult for them to tell the difference between a legal and illegal product.

Photo: Liu Sair-ching, Chairman of the Coalition of Hong Kong Newspaper and Magazine Merchants (right) demonstrating what could possibly left for authentication measures if the amendment is in place.

After a year of scrutiny in the LegCo, the health authorities have decided to push ahead with its plan to enlarge graphic health warnings on tobacco packages despite unanswered concerns from the industry.

An amendment order was gazetted last week, as the government’s latest tobacco control measure, to propose enlarging the graphic health warning to cover at least 85% from currently 50% of the two largest surfaces of the packet or the retail container of cigarettes and tobacco products.

“Health warnings and messages are particularly effective when combined with information designed to increase tobacco users’ motivation and confidence in their ability to quit,” A government spokesperson stated. “International experience and evidence demonstrate that the effectiveness of graphic health warnings increases with their prominence. In many countries, more smokers report getting information about health risks of smoking from health warnings than most other means.”

But with the smoking prevalence in Hong Kong at its record low and the lowest in the region, Liu Sair-ching, Chairman of the Coalition of Hong Kong Newspaper and Magazine Merchants, challenged the effectiveness of the measure, arguing that it would instead encourage the sales of illicit tobacco.

According to Liu, income from selling cigarettes account for about one-third of newspaper stall operators’ total income. If the amendment comes into effect, smaller space will be left for authentication marks, hence making it harder for both consumers and retailers to identify and authenticate a genuine excise stamp on tobacco products from illicit ones. This would in turn put frontline retailers in greater legal risks as they sell, either intentionally or unintentionally, illicit cigarettes.

A similar debate is ongoing across the Pacific as the Canadian Senate began its study of new plain-packaging legislation earlier this month with arguments alike on the table.

“We are not saying that the government should not step up tobacco control measures, but they should not do it without consulting the stakeholders and at such a pace,” Liu asserted. “Even the LegCo Panel on Health Services has not reached a conclusion on this matter, and the government is still hammering the plan down with administrative means. Now it’s nothing more than an ostrich policy.”

Liu warned further action from the industry if the government continues to disregard their concerns.

The amendment will be tabled before the LegCo on 26 April for negative vetting and will come into operation on 21 October, 2017 upon approval. An adaptation period of another six months will be granted.

(Printer – R&R Publishing Limited, Suite 705, 7/F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road Central, HK)