By Xinhua writer Ni Yuanjin
BEIJING, July 15 (Xinhua) -- Chinese and foreign health experts in Beijing are urging tobacco industry in the country to print large warning pictures on cigarette packs, a week after the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report on the global tobacco epidemic on July 7 in Uruguay.
Dr. Sarah England, a technical officer at the Tobacco Free Initiative of the WHO Representative Office in China, said Thursday at a tobacco-control seminar held in Beijing that people have a fundamental right to information about the harms of tobacco and countries have a legal obligation to provide it.
"However, in China, only 23.2 percent of adults believe that tobacco can cause strokes, heart attack and lung cancer," said Dr. England.
According to the WHO report "Warning about the Dangers of Tobacco (Report 2011)", graphic health warning labels on tobacco packaging and mass media campaigns have both been shown to reduce tobacco use.
"Most tobacco users are unaware of the harm caused by tobacco use and up to half of all tobacco users will die from a tobacco-related disease," the report said.
CHINA FAILS TO FULFILL FCTC
China signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003.
Article 11 of the FCTC requires health warning labels on tobacco packaging to be approved by a "competent national authority." It also specifies that the labels should cover no less than 30 percent or more of the face of the cigarette packaging and be "large, clear, visible and legible."
However, cigarettes sold on the Chinese mainland still lack pictures and specific warnings.
"The only improvement in China's commitment to the WHO's FCTC on packaging is the ambiguous warning 'Smoking is Harmful' that has been printed on the front of cigarette packs since October 2008," Jiang Yuan, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said Friday.
Jiang added that the size of the text of the warning is small and it does not contrast strongly with the color of the packaging.
Cigarette packaging has been a frontline in the battle being waged between tobacco companies and health organizations.
Scientific research has shown that large, graphic health warning labels on tobacco packaging can effectively influence people's emotional reactions, increasing their desire to quit smoking and catching the attention of teenagers, children and people who cannot read, Dr. England said.
"Packaging is of critical importance for tobacco merchants," said Wu Yiqun, executive vice director of the Thinktank Research Center for Health Development, adding that it can be used to tempt the young and females to start smoking.
At the same time, graphic health warning labels on tobacco packages are considered to be the best way of persuading smokers to quit, Wu said.
WHY WERE GRAPHIC WARNINGS BLOCKED?
Tobacco gift culture is a major obstacle for tobacco control in China. In China, cigarettes are a symbol of social status and are often given as gifts. However, anti-tobacco groups believe that printing graphic health warnings on packages will help to change this custom.
China received a "Dirty Ashtray Award" from the NGO Framework Convention Alliance after China's representatives made excuses for not printing warning pictures on cigarette packing during the third Conference of the Parties of WHO FCTC, which was held in South Africa's city of Durban in 2008.
China's hygiene and health authorities have no say in the design and implementation of warning labels for tobacco packaging. The Tobacco Monopoly Bureau, led by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), has the final say in matters regarding tobacco sales in China.
Health experts claim that the government uses a double standard for tobacco packaging. Some believe that health warnings are deliberately weakened on the Chinese mainland for the sake of the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau's profits. On the other hand, graphic health warning labels have to be printed on packs when the same tobacco products are sold in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.
"If cigarettes with graphic warning labels are disrespectful to Chinese culture, then why are they still sold in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan?" asked Wu.
China's tobacco-control pioneers are entering a critical period, as the MIIT is scheduled to revise its tobacco packaging regulations by the end of this year.
"Government authorities plan to increase size and number of the warnings, but graphic labels might not be included," Wu said.
However, Chinese health experts have said that they won't give up in their fight for the labels.
According to the WHO report, 42 countries now have graphic warning labels for tobacco packaging. Only 18 countries had such warnings in place in 2008.
"I hope to see China in next year's report," Dr. England said.
The Chinese government included a public smoking ban in its 12th Five-year Plan (2011-2015), which was created in March. Some Chinese cities have also been passing legislation to control second-hand smoke.
A local draft law that bans indoor smoking in public areas was passed in late May in Harbin, the capital city of northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. This was considered to be an important milestone in tobacco-control legislation.
Indoor smoking control regulations in the cities of Tianjin, Chongqing, Nanchang, Shenzhen and Shenyang are also being discussed or are waiting to be voted on.
According to the WHO report, tobacco continues to be the leading cause of preventable death worldwide, killing nearly 6 million people every year.