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Hong Kong: Marlboro tries it on (the pack)
  1. David Simpson

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    Whenever a government announces tobacco control measures which tobacco companies suspect will be effective, the companies' first reaction, at least in private, is to work out ways of getting round them. Under self regulation, they implement whatever schemes they think will most completely negate the measures they have just agreed to, and continue for as long as they can get away with it. It costs nothing to make a grovelling apology, after all; and in extreme cases, it can be delivered with an air of bewilderment that the breach—an isolated lapse whose local perpetrator has been severely reprimanded—could ever have been allowed to happen in the first place.

    Under legislation too, something similar is seen; they simply try it on, starting with a small tester, working up through repeated violations, until finally the breaches of the letter or the spirit of the law become so outrageous that they risk hitting the buffers of enforcement—legal sanctions that actually hurt. The ideal is to cruise along just this side of enforcement, which in many countries is all too easy to do, either because of the effort required to go to court with a prosecution, or because of the equally tiresome effort of tightening up the legislation.

    In Hong Kong, China, with a near total ban on tobacco promotion, Philip Morris must have noticed that the detailed regulations specifying what has to appear on a cigarette pack had omitted to specify all the things that the government must have intended should not appear. All those positive images linking Hong Kong's biggest preventable cause of premature death with macho cowboys, for example, whose banishment was the whole point of the ad ban. So it was perhaps no surprise that early this year, a range of Marlboro packs hit the streets of Hong Kong that were nothing less than pocket sized mini-billboards. Apart from the health warning, each large face was largely covered in images of that universal symbol of independence who shores up the morale of PM's nicotine captives.

    Reports from Hong Kong suggest this was a classic trial run. Will they get away with it? They did that time, it seems. Will they be back? And if they can get away with it in Hong Kong, will they try it elsewhere? Make sure your legislation is tightly drafted, then sit back and watch this space.

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    Images on packs of Marlboro sold in Hong Kong: “pocket sized mini-billboards”.