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UPDATED: February 18, 2009
China's Anti-tobacco Fighters Demand Warning Pictures on Cigarettes
China's tobacco control authorities are seeking support from netizens to urge producers to print warning pictures on cigarette packaging

China's tobacco control authorities are seeking support from netizens to urge producers to print warning pictures on cigarette packaging, trying to set an agenda for the coming parliamentary and political advisory sessions.

The netizens' opinions will be submitted to national political advisors before they meet in March for their annual full meeting to call for more effective tobacco control efforts, organizers said.

The National Tobacco Control Office (NTCO) initiated the move with several websites on Monday to ask the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration to ensure that harms of tobacco are clearly specified on the packs with pictures.

In China, although cigarette packs carry characters that read "smoking is harmful to your health", 70 percent of consumers are still ignorant or numb to the warning, according to a survey by the office last year.

The survey sampled 16,521 people in 40 cities and counties of 20 provinces. The result suggested that specifying tobacco's harms with eye-catching pictures could help more than 90 percent of consumers give up the idea of giving others cigarettes as gift.

According to Wu Yiqun, executive vice director of the Think Tank Research Center for Health Development, many foreign cigarette packings bear shocking pictures showing the consequences of smoking.

"In the Great Britain, for instance, picture on a cigarette pack is a smoker with throat cancer. In Brazil, the picture is heart operation. In Australia, the pack shows black and yellow teeth of a smoker," Wu said.

"Even exported Chinese tobacco has different packs from that sold in domestic markets," Wu said, showing a Zhonghua cigarette pack for overseas consumers with a picture of a smoker's ulcerated foot, which is invisible on the red packing of the same brand for domestic smokers.

Zhonghua, with an ornamental column on its packing, like those on the Tian'anmen Square in Beijing, is often taken as a symbol of social status and given as a gift, Wu said.

Yang Gonghuan, vice director with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that each year, 8.4 million people died in China, among whom 12 percent, or about one million, died of disease connected with tobacco--lung cancer, throat cancer, coronary heart disease, brain stroke, tuberculosis and sudden death of the new-born.

"As smokers are becoming younger, this percentage will soar to 33 percent by 2050. That means about half of the male smokers shall die of smoking-related diseases," Yang said.

By 6 p.m. Monday, more than 5,000 netizens voted on Sohu.com, a major portal in China, to support the tobacco control office's appeal.

But tobacco companies will have to worry about their profit if the proposal is adopted.

"Although it is in line with the International practice and will be inevitable, such a move will definitely impact the tobacco sales in the long run," said Wen Tao, a senior official with the Hongta Group, one of the country's leading tobacco producers based in southwest Yunnan Province.

China inked the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control with the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2003.

The convention stipulates that on packs of tobacco, consequences of smoking must be clearly and strikingly stated. The words or pictures shall take up no less than 30 percent of the entire packing.

At a WHO conference in South Africa last year, China was bestowed with an ash tray as award, which sarcastically implied the government's passiveness in smoking-control.

To fulfill its pledge, China changed many cigarette packs before this past January 9, but experts believed the efforts far from enough.

"On the one hand, the color of the warning characters is similar to that of the background, and the warnings are sometimes in English which many people could hardly understand," Wu said.

"On the other hand, it is clich especially to those with little education to say 'smoking is harmful'," she said. "The point is, what harm does it make."

Shen Minrong, associate professor with the law department of Capital University of Economics and Business, said many companies only care about their profit.

"Surely a pack with an ornamental column or a dragon sells better than those with disgusting pictures," he said.

It is improper, however, to print China's totem on products which are not good for consumers, he said. "Besides, the profit is gained at the price of people's health."

Shen also believed that changing the pack could also help preventing corruption.

Research by Cui Xiaobo, associate professor with the Capital Medical University, showed that 12 percent of the smokers in the country didn't buy cigarettes themselves--their cigarettes were given by others.

A netizen has proposed a more striking warning design: on the cigarette pack there is a Chinese character "shou", or longevity. When the box is opened, the character is folded. It in Chinese is considered as "zhe shou", which means the life span is shortened.

"Of course nobody would give or receive a gift which shortens the life span," Shen said.

(Xinhua News Agency February 17, 2009)

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