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CHINA: Brand-name fix looms for tobacco firms in SAR first

by Mimi LauThe Standard (Hong Kong)
December 20th, 2005

Hong Kong may become the first jurisdiction in the world to force tobacco manufacturers to change the names of their brands, a government official has told legislators.

Under the Smoking (Public Health Amendment) Bill 2005, likely to be passed next year, manufacturers are prohibited from using misleading descriptions such as "mild" and "light"on their packaging.

When lawmakers asked whether the SAR will be the first place in the world to impose such a ban, Deputy Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Bureau Ingrid Yeung answered: "Yes."

An attempt by representatives of Japan Tobacco to get lawmakers to remove this limitation in a Bills Committee meeting Monday failed to find much support.

Japan Tobacco presented results of a survey, conducted by Research/Strategy/Management last month, which showed that smokers did not necessarily associate the brand name Mild Seven with tobacco that was less harmful to health.

Ronald Hinckley, president of the research company, said about 48 percent of 1,026 Chinese respondents said Mild Seven had no particular meaning to them.

Only 2 percent said the name meant the cigarettes were less harmful.

"[Did the respondents] understand English?" asked legislator Tommy Cheung who represents the catering sector.

The answer is no, not all, Hinckley said, adding that those who did not understand English would not be influenced by the word "Mild."

Japan Tobacco vice president Albert Chan said it is unfair for the government to press the company to change the name of a well-known brand, especially as most people in Hong Kong knew Mild Seven by its Cantonese name, Mann Si Fat, which roughly translates as "many things bring fortune."

However, Yeung said that with limited advertising channels available to them, tobacconists might be tempted to use brand names as a marketing strategy.

"No cigarette manufacturer will brand its product the `lung cancer brand' or the `harmful brand,"' Yeung said.

She said the purpose of amending the law is to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke and to send out an educational message to young people.

"We don't want our citizens influenced by misleading brand names," Yeung said.

Chan suggested that instead of a blanket ban on misleading names, Hong Kong could adopt the policy used by Japan and Mexico, which requires manufacturers to put on their packaging a warning informing smokers that descriptions such as "light" and "mild" do not indicate that the cigarettes are less harmful to health.

Earlier this year, the company said it was considering legal action against the government for allegedly breaching the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights over a proposed ban.

It also argued that such a ban would breach the Bill of Rights and World Trade Organization rules that protect companies from discrimination.

A ban on the word "mild" in the brand name would be an infringement on private property rights, the company said, referring to the Basic Law's Articles 6 and 105.

Article 6 protects the right of private ownership of property. Article 105 protects the rights of an individual to the acquisition, use, disposal and inheritance of property and the right to compensation for lawful deprivation of property.

But anti-tobacco groups and legislators have dismissed the company's claims.

Yeung said that Hong Kong is bound by the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

The convention states that there should be protection from tobacco smoke in indoor workplaces.

Lawmakers from the Bills Committee will today visit mahjong parlors in Wan Chai to assess the effect of secondhand smoke on workers.

The next meeting of the committee will be on January 4.



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