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As everyone knows, one of the best and often the earliest evaluation of the effectiveness of any tobacco control measure is the strength of tobacco companies’ resistance to it. In the case of graphic health warnings on cigarette packs, the industry’s insistence that they have no effect is somewhat devalued by numerous resistance strategies. The latest comes from Hong Kong, where Philip Morris has introduced a plastic outer cover to its Marlboro cigarette packs. It comes in two parts, to allow the upper section, bearing the same health warnings as those printed in the same position on the actual pack, to be removed for access to the pack and the cigarettes. The most striking feature of the new cover is a series of images, featuring the unwelcome return of the Marlboro cowboy, whom the government thought it had long since sent off into the sunset.
The idea seems to work like this. Hong Kong is planning to introduce its own set of graphic warnings soon, despite strenuous industry work to convince the government they do not work. They do actually work, so the best damage limitation exercise is to produce a nice outer skin, tough enough to last for years, that can be slipped over the new, unsightly packs when they arrive, to blot out the graphic warnings. Better yet, the covers can have the cowboy on them. He may have been banished from the pack, as an icon that makes Marlboro attractive to the young, not to mention the insecure, downtrodden, humdrum sort of person who buys into the free, wandering, macho cowboy myth—but this isn’t the pack, it’s just a plastic cover. The law says nothing about them.
In the past, government officials in Hong Kong have shown they are not best pleased by cigarette companies deliberately circumventing their regulations. Since becoming a special administrative region (SAR) of China, they have had fewer challenges than in the former colonial days, when Hong Kong was leapfrogging its way from being the world’s most exciting adventure playground for young tobacco advertisers, to one of the region’s model tobacco control centres. Just how the SAR government handles this provocative new challenge remains to be seen.