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There’s something rotten in the Special Administrative Region. Having progressed from almost zero tobacco control 20 years ago to being a regional leader with a comprehensive tobacco control policy by the time it was handed back to China in 1997, Hong Kong is beginning to look decidedly vulnerable to the ever present threat of attack by the tobacco industry. Most sinister is the frequent appearance of people infamous for their previous service to the industry, in new appointments not just in government, but in the health sector.
For example, the University of Hong Kong’s medical faculty, whose department of community medicine is a world leader in research on the effects of smoking on health, has accepted free public relations services from Brenda Chow, the former Tobacco Institute chairwoman and local public affairs director of BAT. The dean of the medical faculty, Professor Lam Shiu-kum, told staff in a memo that the university had invited her to organise a series of media workshops, describing Ms Chow as a “renowned and experienced PR consultant”, but failing to mention her tobacco industry background.
And he certainly made no mention of her being not so much renowned, but notorious in the eyes of most public health professionals, for a long history of the very worst sort of industry-speak in the mass media. “Smoking may be a risk factor [for cancer], but that doesn’t mean cause,” she said in 1989. “There’s no point in carrying on [with health warnings] when people know about it.” She did not neglect the more traditional industry mantras, such as “Advertising is not a significant factor in encouraging youngsters to begin smoking”. In 1992, she eulogised about colourful tobacco ads making Kai Tak airport the jewel it then was “ . . .essential ingredients in the local landscape”. In 1997, she greeted the total tobacco ad ban in the final round of legislation of the colonial government as “ . . .five steps backwards”. By 2001 she was on to addiction: “If nicotine is so addictive, how come the nicotine patches do not sell? Tobacco is an easy target. People jump on the bandwagon.” She also opposed rises in tobacco duty and government funding for the Council on Smoking and Health (COSH). In short, she seems to be the sort of person who, on the face of it, would be about as welcome in a medical faculty as the proverbial rattlesnake in a lucky dip.
Some months earlier, the government appointed Sarah Liao Sau-tung as secretary for environment, transport and works. She had been a Philip Morris consultant on passive smoking, receiving an estimated HK$1 million (US$128 000) in 1990 from the largely tobacco funded Centre for Indoor Air Research to study air quality in Hong Kong. Her co-researcher, John Bacon-Shone, has also been named as a tobacco consultant. Both deny knowing that the tobacco industry was the source of the funding, but an industry lawyer said he told Ms Liao. Perhaps she forgot.
Then there is the case of Mr Lee Jark-Pui. He served as executive director of the Hong Kong Tobacco Institute for seven years until 1994, but is currently a member of the Hospital Authority Board, on which also sits Professor Lam Shiu-kum. Aside from this apparently careless lack of discrimination in public sector appointments, a succession of attempts by tobacco companies to fund educational programmes of the “We’ve changed!” variety have been rumbled and in some cases prevented. But tobacco is a many headed Hydra and no doubt other schemes get through, big and small, before anyone realises their provenance.
An unexpected and singularly inappropriate alliance between tobacco and the government popped up last November, when health advocates were appalled to see advertisements by the Customs and Excise department urging the public not to smoke contraband cigarettes and to shop anyone they thought was involved in smuggling. Not surprisingly, COSH fired off a letter citing a review of over 160 reports from the media, governmental and other sources worldwide on the issue of tobacco industry involvement in smuggling. It added a clear reminder that if an ongoing investigation resulted in prosecution of tobacco industry players, there would be severe embarrassment for the Hong Kong government arising from this unhealthy new alliance.
Astonishingly, the response from the Customs and Excise department, signed by one K Chow (presumably no relation), was written in terms that might have been drafted by Brenda Chow herself. “Smoking is a complex social phenomenon,” it began. “It is the government policy to introduce tobacco control measures in a step-by-step approach . . .” and after a few more sentences of child level explanation of government policy, and reiteration of the department’s commitment to educate the public not to buy illicit tobacco, it ended: “We appreciate the perception problem you raised and wish to assure you that we will take that into account when planning our future educational efforts.” Perception problem? Is this a new style euphemism from the industry stable? With government departments like this, what need has the industry of friends?