Jack Ellis

The Hong Kong government tabled a law yesterday that will substantially increase the size of mandatory health warnings on tobacco products and leave the autonomous territory a step away from full-blown ‘plain packaging’. The developments have led to complaints from tobacco vendors, which claim that they will lose business as consumers switch to counterfeits and grey-market cigarettes as a result of the changes.

The proposed amendment, expected to be approved by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo), will expand the area of a cigarette packet required to carry mandatory health warnings from 50%, as introduced in late 2007, to 85%. The existing set of pictorial health warnings displayed in rotation on packets, which have been in use for the past 10 years, will be upped from six to 12; while packs will also have to display the messages ‘QUITLINE 1833 183’ - the government-sponsored helpline – and ‘QUIT SMOKING FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS’.

The changes to cigarette packets to be brought in under the Smoking (Public Health) (Notices) (Amendment) Order 2017 – published in the Hong Kong Government Gazette on April 21 – are as follows:

  • The area of the graphic health warning shall be of a size that covers at least 85% of the two largest surfaces of the packet and of the retail container;
  • Number of forms of health warning increased from six to 12;
  • The following health warning message is to be included in the existing statement ‘HKSAR GOVERNMENT WARNING’: ‘QUIT SMOKING FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS’ and ‘QUITLINE 1833 183’;
  • The indication of tar and nicotine yields should appear on a surface other than a surface bearing the health warning.

The Amendment Order will also usher in the following changes, among others, with regards to packaging and other sales materials for cigars, pipe tobacco and rolling tobacco:

  • Size of mandatory health warning on the lid of drum-shaped containers – the English version of the same health warning should cover 50% of the surface area of the lid.
  • Size of mandatory health warnings for retail containers of cigars, pipe tobacco or cigarette tobacco (except for those containing one cigar) – will cover 100% of one of the two largest surfaces and 70% of the other largest surface of a cigar box.

The government is proposing a one-year ‘grace period’ from the date of gazetting, in which vendors will be able to shift their existing supply of tobacco products before fully moving over to new stock that is compliant with the amended regulations.

While the move has attracted broad support from public health campaigners, many within Hong Kong’s army of street vendors have reacted to it with disappointment and anger. According to Bacon Liu Sair-ching, chairman of the Coalition of Hong Kong Newspaper and Magazine Merchants, sales of cigarettes account for around one-third of his constituents’ total income. 

“We don’t see what the government can achieve by making the health warning cover 85% of the packaging surface,” Liu told the South China Morning Post. “It will only leave too little room for other information, like the brand of the cigarette. It only brings us more trouble and hits our business. Smokers can simply switch to buying illicit cigarettes. We vendors shall not rule out further protests if the government does not heed our call.”

The suggestion of protest is especially loaded in a city that remains tense after large-scale street demonstrations and incidences of rioting in recent years that have caused significant disruption and attracted somewhat unwelcome attention from the central government in Beijing.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence to back up Liu’s argument that diminished visibility of brands and trademarks could drive consumers towards illicit products. A survey of consumers in Malaysia – which is considering the introduction of full plain packaging – last year found that 81% of them believed plain packaging would make it easier for counterfeiters to produce fake tobacco products; while 88% thought that the introduction of plain packaging would boost sales of fake and smuggled cigarettes as smokers turned to the black and grey markets in an effort to save money. The findings of a recent study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) indicated that the size and placement of graphic health warnings on tobacco product packaging may be a contributory factor in the country’s growing illicit trade in cigarettes.

These studies have been carried out by groups that, it can be argued, have a special interest in maintaining the prominence of branding on tobacco products. There is evidence from the other side of the debate – from such groups as the Association of European Cancer Leagues and the World Health Organisation – that support the opposite view. These have, in essence, been the arguments used in the debate since plain packaging first started rising up the political agenda.

In any case, trademark counsel and brand protection professionals will want to keep abreast of the developments in Hong Kong. Subject to approval by the LegCo, the Amendment Order will come into force on October 21.

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