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Hong Kong: down at the fair

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On October 27-29 last year, Hong Kong was host to the World Tobacco International Tobacco Symposium and Trade Fair. Oddly enough, few Hong Kong newspapers paid much attention to “the event for everyone in tobacco”, except for two pro-Beijing organs Wen Wei Po and Ta Gung Pao which, presumably with encouragement from the industry, gave full coverage over three days.

The symposium president Jiang Chengkang, deputy director of the China State Tobacco Monopoly, delivered a mainly bland assessment of the status of 400 year old China tobacco. He saw, at the least, stability despite the “impact of anti-smoking propaganda” and the possibility of growth as young people in coastal areas and medium to large cities increase their consumption of blended type cigarettes. In his view, the achievements in the last 20 years included “rejuvenating (the) tobacco industry with science and education … a complete scientific development and popularisation system, quality supervision … and the tobacco educational system including colleges, technical secondary schools and training centres …”.

However, Ooi Wei Ming, managing director of BAT China, was more focused on the challenges of “low market growth and … continuing long term decline exacerbated by an increasingly dark business, legal and regulatory landscape”. He identified the Tobacco Free Initiative as the biggest challenge “because it brings the spectre of global tobacco control frighteningly close …  The WHO, in its Framework Convention … seeks to deny access to a legal product enjoyed by hundreds of millions of adult smokers … the implication is that we … don't take our social and economic responsibilities seriously, that we aren't capable of self regulation and need to be nannied by governments … We know this is not the case … it is time to push back …  to make our case in a compelling way”.

“BAT … is taking the lead in dealing with these very public issues … and we believe in doing this in a responsible way … Our vision is an environment where we work in partnership with all our (sic) stakeholders—including those we perceive as our adversaries—to promote mutual understanding benefit and interest. As an example of this, we have been actively seeking to cooperate with global organisations like the WHO on issues such as youth smoking prevention … we have sponsored such programmes in partnership with China's State Tobacco Society and Soong Ching Ling Foundation. Is this not socially responsible behaviour?” Other good works rattled off by Mr Ooi included an afforestation programme in Cambodia and sponsorship of academic scholarships for outstanding tertiary students in Malaysia. “Is this not contributing to economic well being and “giving back” (sic) to the communities in which we live and work?”

The formation of partnerships in the community was picked up by Ellis Woodward, vice president for corporate affairs of Philip Morris Asia Ltd. He thought that “Any number of public issues have the potential to derail industry's ability to effectively manage the public environment. But …  the single greatest threat is … youth smoking … Concern about youth smoking is not just a fad or a passing phenomenon … And we in the industry share that concern”. Mr Woodward felt there was some good news, however, “that our industry has been—and can be—on the right side. We agree with our critics and with the general public that kids should not smoke,” adding that they have made good progress on youth smoking in Asia.

These youth smoking activities included: a radio campaign in Hong Kong; anti-youth (sic) access programmes in Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Pakistan; a marketing code in the Philippines; an “unprecedented partnership between the industry and Tapei City government in Taiwan led by the very popular Mayor of Taipei”; in Indonesia and India “the industry is pulling together to get those (minimum age) laws on the books”; and in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand “a variety of youth smoking prevention programmes”.

Vietnamese tobacco companies are not cooling their heels in pursuit of the local teenage market. The Saigon Cigarette Factory's Boy, the Vinasa Tobacco JV Company's Rave (manufactured under the authority of Net Corp, USA), and the HTF company's Titanic all sink to new lows. The Titanic pack shows Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet looking wistfully into the fog as the Titanic goes bottom up. With Vietnam being the world's capital for unauthorised copying of designer goods, software and CDs, the stars' images are almost certainly being used without their permission. In May 1999, pop icon Robbie Williams was angered to find that his photo was being used unauthorised by BAT to promote Benson & Hedges in a music supplement in Sri Lanka. An unrepentant BAT trotted out the usual nonsense about sponsorship having nothing to do with selling cigarettes. We can almost hear the Vietnamese company explaining that the Titanic imagery is in fact an effort to warn smokers of their impending doom. Tobacco Control challenges DiCaprio and Winslet to follow Williams' lead in condemning their exploitation. Simon Chapman, Editor.

“Youth smoking prevention … is a shining example of why we must reach out when we do share the same goals as our critics and society at large … We believe that by taking these actions we can avoid the same mistakes we made in the United States … Our company is committed in Asia, in the US, and in every corner of the world … to retaining, and where necessary, rebuilding and resuming what we believe is our rightful place in society …”

Woodward stated that “the general public in Asia is not ‘out to get’ tobacco companies”. His carefully crafted anthology contains many powerful word bites that will predictably impress Asian business people (in chambers of commerce), legislators, and civil servants. They present a real and immediate challenge to tobacco control advocates in the Asia Pacific region. These redefinitions of the industry's persona in Asia were followed by a candid account by Brenda Chow (BAT) of how the Tobacco Institute cosied up to the Hong Kong government's Finance Bureau and secured a freeze on tobacco duty increases in 1998-99 and aims to do the same for 1999-2000. But that is another story.