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HK: From ads to ashes (fwd)
>From ads to ashes
by CLARENCE TSUI
Source: South China Morning Post, Sunday, 12/12/99
January 1 is not only the start of a new millennium, it is D-Day for
anti-smoking activists in Hong Kong. From then on cigarette advertisements
will be banished for good from magazines and newspapers, the last step in
sealing the local mass media off from publicity campaigns of tobacco
The measures mean the SAR has some of the most stringent controls in the
You would expect this to make Professor Anthony Hedley, the outspoken
chairman of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health (COSH), happy. He
and his colleagues have called for such a ban for more than a decade.
But no. He is still worried about loopholes left uncovered.
"I wouldn't use the word satisfied because we have huge problems in
tobacco control here," Professor Hedley says.
"Removing one source of advertising is unlikely to be the answer to the
problem because our environment has been totally dominated by tobacco
"Under those kind of circumstances it is very difficult to gauge the
effects of removing one source of advertising. What we have always argued
for is a much more broadly based and almost total control of tobacco
He believes tobacco firms may elect to carry out promotional campaigns
through pinpointing individuals. "I suspect they will be going for a lot
of direct mailing - maybe they will try to target smokers and potential
smokers through mailing and retail outlets."
Consumers could face some strange sights: whole windows, for instance,
filled with menacing formations of cigarette packets.
For Professor Hedley, conspiracies abound. He harbours a deep distrust of
cigarette manufacturers. He believes the companies, as enterprises looking
for the highest profit margins, will stop at nothing to sell their
products. A blanket ban will only strengthen their resolve: he predicts a
price-slashing sales war as players vie for a bigger market share.
"What they don't spend on advertising they may trade off as discounts on
cigarettes," he says, referring to one brand that recently cut its price
by one-third as a promotion. "Cheap tobacco is a huge health risk - they
are attractive to younger people because their demand responds to price
The local mass media itself is also to blame, he says. For example, he
finds it surprising that two local newspapers ran full-page special
reports about last month's international tobacco symposium in Hong Kong:
"I'd like to know why they thought it was worth their while to run such
elaborate, in-depth stories on the trade fair - it's not news, it's not of
great interest, but it could be influential.
"And what they are reporting are statements by some of these senior
industry executives saying, 'We must restrain promotion of tobacco to
young people'. This is the industry saying things that they hope will
influence legislators or government officials in many countries so that
people are not arguing for further stringent regulatory actions against
the tobacco industry."
The ban on print media advertising is probably the most controversial
anti-smoking measure to be implemented in Hong Kong since 1990, when the
Legislative Council outlawed television and radio commercials. That move
set the wheels in motion - bans against outdoor advertising, brand
placements on the Internet as well as promotions through sponsorship of
sports and cultural activities followed.
This latest ban is part of the Smoking (Public Health) (Amendment)
Ordinance passed by Legco in June 1997. Among the other anti-tobacco
measures included are the prohibition of giving out free cigarettes as
samples, offering gifts as an inducement for sales and outlawing cigarette
advertisements on public hoardings and the exteriors of buildings.
Unsurprisingly, the tobacco firms are unhappy about these measures. Some
say stopping the flow of information to consumers indirectly creates an
oligarchy in the tobacco industry.
"We do not agree with the Government on the advertising ban because such
bans only freeze competition," says Brenda Chow Kam-wah, public relations
director for British American Tobacco, one of the SAR's largest cigarette
makers. "The brand market leader will continue to be the market leader
when the ban becomes effective and the brand leader will monopolise the
market. [When] this Government decides to ban tobacco advertising, it goes
contrary to their policy of non-intervention.
"Advertising is one of the channels [by which] we communicate with our
consumers, so our consumers may not learn about new brands, new product
information or changes about the product."
However, unlike the furore surrounding the ban for the electronic media in
1990, when many predicted (inaccurately) the instant shrivelling of the
advertising industry as well as the potential damage to TV and radio
stations, doomsday talk is rare this time round.
In anticipation of the wave of embargoes over the past 10 years, many
tobacco firms have moved their publicity operations away from the print
"The issue has been on the cards for so long that cigarette companies have
phased out their advertising strategies on newspapers," says Dominic Ng
Yuen-tong, account director for advertising agency CIA Media Network.
The revenue that advertising agencies receive from tobacco companies has
not, however, plummeted, says Mr Ng.
"They have all these new promotional strategies - like sponsoring Minister
of Youth programmes, or pushing their name forward in musical and artistic
events. All these keep the agencies with work on their hands."
Daniel Poon Yiu-chow, business director for advertising at the
mass-circulation Apple Daily, is not worried either. "Advertisements from
cigarette companies only amounted to about two per cent of our whole
volume - the amount is about $10 million or so and has remained steady for
the past few years," he said. "With the upcoming regulations in mind, the
media do not depend too much on these adverts for revenue."
Away from such pragmatic talk, some industry insiders are worried whether
the ban is a necessary or effective way to discourage people from smoking.
"We watch it with a bit of suspicion of the Government and COSH's promise
that fewer people will smoke because of the ban," says Albert Chan
Yu-chung, executive director of the Tobacco Institute of Hong Kong, the
commercial chamber for the local tobacco industry.
Mr Chan is very careful in offering his views on whether the ban will help
curb tobacco usage, using a breakdown of figures showing the smoking
percentage of the population.
According to government statistics, that figure remained at about 15 per
cent for most of the 1990s, even after the ban on TV and radio commercials
in 1990. The number increased steadily throughout the decade, from 691,900
in 1990 to 805,100 in 1998 as the population grew.
"The percentage has already dropped to a very stable level, so it is
difficult to say whether there is anything we can do to further reduce
it," Mr Chan argues.
He believes public education that increases health awareness should be the
key to the Government's anti-smoking strategy. "The approach should be: we
have told you everything and the decision is yours."
Such a view is in line with new company thinking. Some of the giants of
the industry have lately stepped into the confession box and admitted that
cigarettes are generally bad for your health - a fact that, although
well-proven by the medical profession for years, they have long denied.
Their change of mind came after defeats in landmark US court cases.
Professor Hedley remains sceptical. "I'm not going to be dogmatic - but
what I will repeat is we must be very guarded about allowing the [tobacco]
industry to work its way into the fabric of the community as it has in the
past," he says.
For him, the war does not stop at Marlboro Man's disappearance from public
view: "We must continue to move as quickly as possible to achieve a
situation that tobacco is a fully controlled substance."
Like a medical prescription, maybe? "I'm not going to be specific; that's
an option that is suggested. I'd rather not medicate it - I'd try to
ROAD TO A TOTAL AD BAN
August 13, 1982: Health warnings on cigarette packets made statutory.
December 1, 1990: Prohibition of cigarette advertisements on TV and radio.
August 1, 1992: Prohibition of cigarette advertising in cinemas.
January 1, 1994: Cigarette advertisements for display in print media and
on signs and billboards must bear a health warning that takes up at least
20 per cent of the surface area. Single government health warnings
replaced by stronger messages, such as: "Smoking can kill".
June 24, 1997: Legislation bans cigarette brands from appearing as
sponsors for sports and cultural activities. The holding companies for the
brands, however, remain free from restrictions.
April 1, 1998: Tobacco ads on the Internet outlawed.Sale of tobacco
products from vending machines stopped.
June 26, 1998: Prohibition of outdoor advertising, such as on the
exteriors of buildings or MTR poster spaces.
July 1, 1998: Prohibition of free tobacco products for purposes of
promotion; free gifts also outlawed.
July 16, 1999: Prohibition of the sale of cigarettes in packets of less
January 1, 2000: A blanket ban on tobacco advertisements in locally
published newspapers and magazines.