HONG KONG BAN MAY BE TOUGHER THAN CHINA'S;TOBACCO GROUP THREATENS SUIT IF LAW IS PASSED

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[hong kong] Usually laissez-faire Hong Kong, where almost anything goes when it comes to business, seems to be on the verge of introducing a total ban on tobacco advertising.

This would make the British colony's tobacco ad laws even harsher than those in China, which takes over the territory in July 1997, and among the most severe in Asia.

SOME ADS ALREADY BANNED

Currently, Hong Kong bans cigarette advertising on TV and in cinemas, but is ablaze with massive outdoor boards, sponsored events like R.J. Reynolds Tobacco International's Salem Tennis Open, and major print ads marketing the products.

Laws are being drafted that could stub out advertising freedom, if not stamp it out altogether, tobacco and advertising executives fear.

Neighboring China recently introduced media restrictions on cigarette marketing, but it allows point-of-sale, outdoor, merchandising and some sponsorship. Nearby Singapore has a blanket ban.

Hong Kong's Tobacco Institute has threatened to sue the government if a total ban is introduced, claiming the measures would contravene Hong Kong's Bill of Rights on the grounds of freedom of speech. Both the advertising and tobacco industries say they have not been given a chance to argue their point of view.

FREEDOM A HALLMARK

"One of the hallmarks of Hong Kong has been its freedom of commercial speech," said Allen Chichester, managing director of Leo Burnett in Hong Kong, which handles the colony's biggest cigarette account, Philip Morris' Marlboro. "These initiatives are a slippery slope for an economy like Hong Kong's that thrives on these freedoms."

A study by accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand found a total ban would cost the Hong Kong economy $128 million as the restrictions trickled through the economy, and that more than 1,000 jobs would be lost from ad agencies and suppliers such as printers and production houses.

The study estimated total spending on tobacco advertising in the colony totalled $63 million in 1995.

The Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies, Hong Kong, is leading the lobbying effort and has written to members of the Executive Council, the colonial cabinet that views draft legislation in secret.

So far, the content of the draft has remained under wraps, leaving lobbyists to guess at its severity. A government source said the legislation is being reworked for the third time after some initial concerns, and will likely be presented to legislators for debate after the summer recess.

Anthony Lau, a committee member of the Hong Kong Advertisers Association, is angry there has been no formal public consultation. "If tobacco is a legal product, why should tobacco advertising be banned?" argued Mr. Lau. "The government just wants it to be a fait accompli."

Hong Kong's Tobacco Institute is heartened by a court decision in Canada last year that ruled a similar ban was unconstitutional. "The Canadian situation is similar to Hong Kong's, in that both jurisdictions grant constitutional protection to freedom of speech, including commercial speech," the Institute stated.

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