Would plain packaging reduce smoking in China?

NOTE: This is the UNEDITED version of the article that was submitted to the Shenzhen Daily and published in 2014 or 2015.

Following my own article on this subject on Monday May 25 and Shenzhen Daily’s own investigation, published Friday May 29, it is clear that enforcement of smoking laws is not going to happen without a substantial change in approach.

Since that article, Beijing has announced the toughest anti-smoking measures yet, banning smoking in public indoor places as well as tobacco advertisements, effective June 1. In addition, smoking in all workplaces and schools are banned. Tobacco cannot be sold within 100 meters of a kindergarten, primary school, middle school or children’s activity center. No new certificates for tobacco sales will be issued for retailers within these 100 metre arcs, and those retailers that currently possess them will not be able to get new ones once they expire. Beijing airport will close its indoor smoking rooms and open 11 outdoor smoking areas.

Fines were issued as early as June 2nd, which is a positive sign, but the real question is will they continue to be issued? It was admitted by the Beijing Health Inspection Bureau that they can only select the key places to inspect and hope that more people will follow the regulation voluntarily. Let’s be honest, that is never going to happen.

But, what if a different approach was taken? What if cigarettes were more expensive, and the effects of cigarettes on one’s health were known to the consumer? In Australia, a packet of 20 cigarettes costs more than ¥100 (US$16), with taxes taking up more than 62% of the final cost of the packet. In addition, the packets are required, by law, to be a dark olive color with disturbing images of diseased lungs, eyes, feet, mouths, unborn babies – if it is diseased from the effects of smoking, it has that picture dominating the packets. They are also festooned with warnings about the impacts of smoking on your body and the people around you.

Clearly, the tobacco companies hate plain packaging. Australia is still fighting big tobacco companies through international tribunals and treaties, one in particular based out of Hong Kong from 1993. The result of this case is expected by February 2016 but Australia’s original success has seen other countries push their own plain packaging laws in their own jurisdictions.

So why try this here in China? One of the problems that the government has in discouraging is that the population does not believe that smoking is harmful to them. Plain packaging or at least the inclusion of pictures of what smoking can do to your body could dissuade young people from taking up smoking as well as encourage people to quit smoking. Evidence in Australia suggests that the rate of people willing to quit smoking jumped from 20% to 27% in the months following the introduction of plain packaging. I do not suggest that it is the cause of the jump, but it must have been a factor.

Plain packaging and tax increases – the hip pocket and medical solution to reducing smoking in China.

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