Gory Warnings/Plain Packaging: Won’t Be Scaring China
The printing of picture health warnings on cigarette packaging will not be a panacea for cracking the hard nut of tobacco control.
Despite government efforts to tighten tobacco controls, simplifying cigarette packaging with picture health warnings proves to be quite difficult in China due to stiff corporate resistance and cultural traditions.
By Tobacco China Online
As global tobacco control turns increasingly harsh, governments in all countries adopt policies to increase tobacco taxes and prices, ban tobacco products, and require the printing of large graphic health warnings, signs, etc. on cigarette packets.
Since Australia became the first country to impose plain packaging for cigarettes in November 2011, the gravity of global tobacco control generally shifted onto simplifying cigarette packaging. Cigarette packaging – the most visible way of advertising that is the closest to consumers – became an arena for an epic struggle between tobacco companies and anti-tobacco groups.
At least 45 countries around the world adopted some type of legislation on printing graphic health warnings and signs on cigarette packaging, and the laws of nearly 20 countries specifically provide that health warnings and gruesome graphic pictures of smoking-related disease shall cover no less than 50% of each packet.
Recently, India’s legislation requiring such large-sized health warnings sparked protests from interested parties including tobacco companies and tobacco growers. The new EU tobacco products directive went into effect May 2016, meaning that all tobacco packaging and hand-rolled cigarette containers must include large and graphic pictorial health warnings, which will cover 65% of the packaging, with additional warning messages on every packet. Moreover, the theme of the World No Tobacco Day 2016, which falls on May 31, is “Get Ready for Plain Packaging”. All such developments indicate that the printing of graphic health warnings is a universal theme of global tobacco control.
In China, Duan Tieli, deputy director-general of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA), told news media in March 2016 that “to print graphic health warnings and signs on cigarette packaging does not conform to traditional Chinese culture, and presently, there is no plan for adding such graphic health warnings”, which immediately aroused controversy among the public. Therefore, at this time, the printing of graphic health warnings on cigarette packets in China seems unlikely. Regardless of whether the statement made by the deputy chief of STMA was opportune or not, at the very least, it revealed a cultural factor, which makes it difficult to impose such health warnings and warning messages on cigarette packaging.
China’s traditional aesthetic outlook
In other countries, the design of cigarette packaging is often simple and plain. On the contrary, the design of cigarette packaging in China always emphasizes beauty and the sense of quality, with very complex and florid application of colors. Therefore, the name of cigarette brands and the design of cigarette packets are both part of the country’s rich tapestry of traditional aesthetic and have a historical and cultural significance.
It is very common to see cigarette packets bearing images of famous maintains, rivers, historical sites, well-known buildings, rare and precious national treasures, and rare flowers. For example, the big Chinese cigarette brands, including Chunghwa, Mount Huangshan, Panda, Peony and The Pavilion of Prince Teng, all have such designs or images on their packaging. Moreover, cigarette packaging is often ethnic in character and makes ample use of traditional designs and symbols. Many mainstream cigarette brands including Chunghwa, Double Happiness, and Baisha all use designs of the Tiananmen gate, ornamental columns, white cranes, etc. In addition, more than 70% of all cigarette packets use red (as it represents harmony and celebration) or gold (because it creates a sense of wealth and superiority) as the background color, which are both very common in traditional aesthetic.
Such characteristics of the tobacco industry in China give rise to a brand and visual culture that are fundamentally different from those of other countries. The designs and signs on cigarette packaging not only carry a strong and deep sense of history of traditional culture, but also integrate a sense of national pride. If gruesome warning pictures of rotten lungs, damaged mouths, skulls and bones, etc. were printed on a cigarette packet with a beautiful landscape, the existence of “beauty” and “ugliness” in the same space would make it virtually impossible for people to accept them, and may tarnish the image and profound significance of traditional Chinese cultural symbols.
An important symbol of social contact
Cigarettes have been around China since the 16th and 17th centuries. More significantly, tobacco products became an important carrier for involvement with and enlargement of the network of social connections. It plays an important role in developing circles of friends in the people’s daily life and on special occasions, and tobacco culture is part of China’s culture. An offer of a cigarette is considered a type of social contact, a kick starter that breaks the ice when initiating a social contact, as well as a kind of “social lubricant”, a shortcut to friendly relations that shortens the distance between people. On many occasions, including exchanging greetings with a stranger, getting together with relatives or friends, having business talks and other social arrangement, a polite offer of a cigarette often immediately eliminates the feeling of social awkwardness and unfamiliarity and bridges the distance between those who are present.
Moreover, cigarettes are often considered symbols of identity, social status, and wealth. If China follows other countries and prints disgusting pictures on its cigarette packet, how could the traditional feeling of respect, obedience, friendship, love, or harmony be quickly conveyed when offering someone a cigarette from such a packet? This is not an argument to advocate smoking, but an objective analysis within the context of the cultural environment.
Conveying feelings of nostalgia
In the process of development, many cigarette brands such as Mount Hongtashan, Yellow Crane Tower, Chunghwa, Panda, Jinsheng (The Pavilion of Prince Teng), and Kuanzhai imprinted particular symbols of their home areas, with their name or packaging carrying unique geographical or cultural characteristics of their birthplace, which may remind people of the landmarks or symbols of their homeland. Seeing something from their homeland may also make people nostalgic. Usually, people are keen to smoke cigarettes from their home region, or at the very least, occasionally indulge in a cigarette from their home city or province more out of a nostalgic feeling than a mere act of cigarette smoking. Also a commonplace tradition in China when returning from a visit to their hometown, people offer relatives or friends cigarettes manufactured in that area as a small gift.
When cigarette smokers think of home, or when they inadvertently see a cigarette brand bearing the symbols of their home province, they might feel pangs of nostalgia, and smoking a cigarette produced in their hometown might be just what the doctor ordered. On the other hand, if someone sees pictures of blackened lungs or yellowed teeth printed on cigarette packets, won’t their feelings of nostalgia be negatively impacted?
Graphic health warnings not a panacea
Graphic health warnings, no matter whether they take a classier mild form or a dreadful and tasteless form intended by their very nature to reduce or stop cigarette smoking. However, as realities are different in different countries, it is unfeasible to demand that all countries forcibly adopt the same measures by applying a unified standard. The printing of graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging is not a panacea that will solve the complex issue of tobacco control. As for the effect of such health warnings, there has so far been no convincing evidence to prove that they have any lasting effect.
In the United States, tobacco control legislation reaches almost ridiculous heights, but so far there has been no US law forcing tobacco companies to print graphic health warnings with blacked hearts, rotten lungs, yellowed teeth, etc, on cigarette packaging, on the grounds that such health warnings totally deviate from the scientific manner of disseminating truthful information, arbitrarily exaggerate negative impacts of cigarette smoking on health, and excessively play up unbalanced anti-tobacco passions, which seriously affects legitimate rights and interests of tobacco companies and consumers.
In China, although there are no graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging, there are written warnings printed on both the cover and the back of cigarettes, and they are essentially intended to warn the public. Thanks to continued promotion of education and general enhancement of public awareness about health, people have no need to learn about the harm of cigarette smoking with the aid of pictures.
Cigarette packaging design in China is closely associated with traditional cultures, and the printing of graphic health warnings is not the best approach to tobacco control in the country. Presently, China can strengthen its tobacco control efforts in other aspects, adopting such measures as increased taxes and adjusted prices, continuing to enlarge the scope of the strictest tobacco control orders, and adopt scientific and effective tobacco control policies that take into account the realities. Judging by the present situation, it is rather unrealistic for cigarette packaging to immediately abandon its beautiful traditional image and switch to a dreary or ugly one.