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Hong Kong, China: fears for health as business dominates
  1. David Simpson

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    In the early 1980s, Hong Kong was a tobacco marketing executive’s paradise. It not only had few effective tobacco control measures, but its comparatively high male smoking prevalence meant sales, its low prevalence among a female population that was clearly becoming more emancipated and economically powerful meant increased future sales, and its proximity to China, to which the territory was soon to be returned, meant the possibility of finding the keys to heaven. It was thus an extraordinary achievement when, in its final years of existence, the British colonial government introduced just about a full house of effective tobacco control laws, albeit recognising that in due course further improvements would be required in areas such as smoking in pubic places, and health warnings.

    Hong Kong’s change of status to a Special Administrative Region of China did not see an obvious return to dominance of the tobacco industry, but it was not long before it became apparent that the new generation of government bureaucrats had little idea of how devious the tobacco companies could be. People with tobacco connections started to turn up at senior level on prestigious government committees, in high profile social service operations, and even in the health sector. When increasing publicity based on previously secret internal tobacco industry documents propelled the industry into frantic image reinvention, the Tobacco Institute gave around HK$18 million (US$2.3 million) to set up a “youth education” programme, and other tobacco stained characters offered financial support to education and social projects. Like the head of Medusa, as soon as these schemes were exposed and neutralised by the few who appreciated just what was going on, others would appear. Officials in key government departments, who had taken time to learn how vital it was to nip such efforts in the bud, would then be replaced by others lacking such understanding.

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    Guatemala: cash prize ads This advertisement displayed recently at convenience stores in Guatemala promoted Payasos (Clowns) cigarettes with an offer of “50,000 chances to win an instant cash prize”, so that “lucky” smokers would hope to find currency bills inside their pack. Photo: Joaquin Barnoya.

    Progress continued to be made, but seemingly at much greater cost of time and effort. Whereas just a few years ago everyone knew the industry credentials of the youth education scheme and ensured that self respecting health and educational institutions gave it the appropriate long barge pole treatment, nowadays only a few seem aware of its sinister provenance, or see little difference between it and the genuine article.

    Now there is fresh cause for concern. The industry has enjoyed some important victories recently, such as the failure of the finance secretary to increase tobacco tax in the last budget. He said cigarettes were already heavily taxed, that raising tax encouraged smuggling (beginning to sound familiar?), and, almost unbelievably, that he wanted a budget that did not contain tobacco tax increases. Health officials are asking on what grounds he could possibly justify trading off all the benefits of another rise—not only the future health improvement, but an increase in his tobacco revenue—just so he could make the curious boast of no tobacco tax rise this time.

    Now there are real fears that a vital new bill may be receiving less than the necessary effort to bring it before the legislative council (LegCo). The bill is supposed to extend the smoking ban to all indoor workplaces, schools, restaurants, bars, and karaoke venues. Mahjong and massage parlours, exempted from the original ban, would be included, too. Despite the experience of countries that have done things properly, the government has been heard repeating the industry line that businesses would be adversely affected in the long term after a total ban is introduced. Touching faith in the market was shown by a leading member of LegCo, Tommy Cheung, whose background is in the catering industry. He said suggestions that a smoking ban would actually boost restaurant business in the long term were ridiculous: if that was true, businesses would have banned smoking a long time ago.

    Meanwhile, Philip Morris executives continue to strain every muscle to try to create a dialogue with leaders of health agencies, and to get themselves on radio and television, admitting everything about the dangers of active smoking, but declining to comment on highly damaging documents of the type so often publicised in Tobacco Control, implicating their company in activities for which it is so infamous: “We can’t comment on that – we haven’t seen those documents,” is the standard response. As in so many countries, these activities in Hong Kong, once a flagship market in Asia, are highly disturbing, as they clearly have a pro-tobacco agenda behind them. Even more disturbing are reports from around the world of health organisations whose leaders are naive enough to agree to meetings.

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