China Balks at Requiring Graphic Health Warning Labels on Cigarette Packs

Graphic health warning labels... they're not pretty, nor are they intended to be. Cigarette packs displaying graphic health warning labels may be increasingly commonplace nowadays but they still have shock value, and that's why health experts and anti-smoking organizations alike continue to push for their use. There's one very large place, however, where cigarettes are still sold with non-graphic, unobtrusive health warnings: China.

It's possible to see cigarettes displaying graphic health warnings accompanied by text in Chinese, but you'll have to go to Taiwan (left), Hong Kong or Macau to find them. Why is the PRC digging in its heels over this issue, when China freely signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control back in 2003?

According to Xinhua Insight, “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'.”

Instead, “The only improvement in China's commitment to the WHO's FCTC on packaging,” said Jiang Yuan, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “is the ambiguous warning 'Smoking is Harmful' that has been printed on the front of cigarette packs since October 2008.” Jiang added that the small and unobtrusive text warnings (right) did not show much contrast with the rest of the package design.

Some say the government in Beijing is reluctant to offend the deeply engrained tradition of offering cigarettes as gifts. The act of presenting tobacco products is seen as a signal of the gift-giver's high social status and cigarette packs emblazoned with unappealing imagery would reflect poorly on the presenter. Even so, “if cigarettes with graphic warning labels are disrespectful to Chinese culture,” wondered Wu Yiqun, executive vice director of the Thinktank Research Center for Health Development, “then why are they still sold in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan?”

Because they're required to under existing laws, Wu, which don't exist on the mainland. This is also the reason why you'll occasionally see Chinese cigarettes carrying bold text warnings in English: they're made for export.

Another clue to China's obfuscation on the issue lies in the way cigarettes are sold in China. The country's hygiene and health authorities are powerless when it comes to designing warning labels for cigarettes. Instead, anything affecting tobacco sales in China falls under the purview of the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau, a governmental monopoly under the aegis of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

It would seem that the maintenance of profits carries more weight with the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau than health issues, the cost of which are mainly incurred years ahead – and dealt with by a different ministry.

Yet there's hope things may change. The MIIT is scheduled to revise its tobacco packaging regulations by the end of this year (2011), though there's no guarantee China will join the 42 nations who require graphic health warnings on cigarette packs.

In addition, China was embarrassed in 2008 during the third Conference of the Parties of WHO FCTC when the NGO Framework Convention Alliance bestowed the “Dirty Ashtray Award” due to China's repeated excuses for not implementing the use of graphic warning labels. Well, it's not like the WHO has China's commitment in writing... oh wait. (via Xinhuanet, Want China Times, and the New England Journal of Medicine. Main image via Telegraph UK)