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Poland’s world-leading health warnings

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Good news from Poland: despite a desperate fight by the tobacco industry, all cigarette packs sold in Poland since 14 June 1998 have been required to carry the world’s biggest health warnings. The new warnings must cover at least 30% of each of the two largest sides of the pack, up from a mere 4%. In practice, the single warning currently in use in Poland, “tobacco smoking causes cancer and heart disease”, is split into two, which respectively mention cancer on one side and heart disease on the other. Under the same legislation, tobacco advertisements, too, must carry warnings occupying at least 20% of the total surface area, a provision already implemented since April 1997.

The industry repeatedly managed to delay this aspect of Poland’s Tobacco Control and Health Protection Act. The act was passed in November 1995, but the following month, in one of his last actions as president, Lech Walesa vetoed the act on the grounds that it did not ban advertising. This hard line came as a surprise to many, as five years earlier, shortly before becoming president, Walesa had appeared in a series of Philip Morris ads celebrating the bicentennial of the United States Bill of Rights, in return for a cash payment. In any case, the veto was soon removed by the new president, with the act becoming law in May 1996.

For well over a year, however, there were persistent, industry-backed attempts to get parliament to amend this part of the act, and some surprising postponements were made by the government. The then minister of health and social welfare, RJ Zochowski, ordered several delays at the request of the tobacco industry, signing the last of them even as he himself approached death from cancer.

The scale of the industry’s efforts to defeat or at least weaken the new measures is itself instructive, indicating the potential effectiveness of this sometimes underrated aspect of tobacco control policy. Unfortunately, some concessions were surrendered, the most important being to change the instructions for the colour of the warnings, originally specified as “black and white”, to “contrasting colours”. One glance at the pack reproduced here is enough to show who decides how to interpret this: the use of gold or silver on white is a monument to the industry’s contempt for health policy.

New health warnings on cigarette packs in Poland—large but coloured in camouflage.

So Poland has its new warnings at last, thanks to the determination of health advocates and trusty politicians who fought so hard for them. No doubt there will be opportunities in the future to rectify the print colour regulations. As for advertising, the scheduled ban in the countries of the European Union now provides the obvious example to follow.