Chinese city tries to water down tobacco ad ban

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BEIJING -- The local advertising regulatory agency in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province, has said it is willing to ban all outdoor cigarette ads for two months, China Daily reports.

The Guangzhou Administration for Industry and Commerce has offered the temporary ban as a compromise with the municipal government which recently issued a ban of all public cigarette and tobacco advertising, to be put into effect August 25. It was unclear if the municipal government accepted the compromise, China Daily says in its report.

When the municipal government first decided to ban all tobacco advertising, the industry administration (the agency tasked with enforcing the ban) balked, saying a ban would force it to arbitrarily break existing lucrative contracts with cigarette advertisers.

"The ban is forcing us to break contracts signed with tobacco advertisers," Yi Zhenhua, an official from the Guangzhou Administration for Industry and Commerce, is reported as saying. "We can't tolerate it." He added that there is no legal basis for the ban.

"We could not find relevant regulations in China's Advertising Law [of 1994]," Mr. Yi said. "Therefore, the ban's period of validity will be shortened to two months: this September and October.'' The law only prohibits tobacco ads from public places like waiting rooms, theaters, cinemas, conference rooms and sports arenas and does not include the main streets, bus stations, squares, cafe umbrellas and buses.

Guangzhou is probably the Chinese city with the most cigarette ads, which earn it both extra income and a bad reputation.

Recently, cigarette ads were temporarily pulled when inspection groups came to judge whether the city was qualified to be designated a National Sanitary Metropolis.

Under the newly passed ban, any advertising agencies which violate the regulations could lose the right to handle any cigarette ads. However, opposition from the regulatory agency makes enforcing the ban almost impossible.

At the same time, the State watchdog has reaffirmed that tobacco advertising must abide by the Advertising Law. "Tobacco advertisements can be put on billboards and automobiles,'' said Dong Jingsheng, a division chief with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.

But many local governments have tried to ban nearly all cigarette ads in direct contradiction with the law, spurred by a yearly National Sanitary Metropolis appraisal. As the appraisal approaches each September, local governments have tried to get rid of cigarette ads in bus stations and streets - one of the 10 conditions for qualifying as a sanitary metropolis. But those efforts are illegal, China Daily quotes Mr. Dong as saying.

Moreover, the clean-up campaign has also forced advertising agencies to break contracts signed with tobacco companies.

Experts say many local governments want both a reputation as a clean city and the profits from selling space for cigarette ads. Big profits tempt local officials to skirt the law by selling even more space than is legal. But each September, those same cities ban all advertising on tobacco.

Mr. Dong says inconsistent application of the law must stop and the offenders punished. The State Administration for Industry and Commerce, the regulator of cigarette advertising, handles dozens of such cases, mainly involving local newspapers and television stations.

Copyright August 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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