Anti-smoking advocates on Sunday attacked tobacco giant Philip Morris' new cigarette packaging in Hong Kong as an attempt to counter a government plan to add graphic health warnings to the packets.
The company recently released a limited edition plastic sleeve for its Marlboro cigarettes. The glossy red and black cover _ featuring the Marlboro Man strumming a guitar _ can be reused for different cigarette packets, and could help smokers hide the planned graphic warnings.
Judith Mackay, a senior policy adviser on smoking issues to the World Health Organization, called the new packaging a "cynical attempt" to "reintroduce some glamor back into the sale of cigarettes."
She accused Philip Morris of trying to circumvent the government's proposal to add graphic warnings to cigarette packets and ban descriptions that understate the health risk of smoking.
"It's absolutely against the spirit of the law, which is to do away with imagery that makes these packets more attractive to young people," Mackay said.
The new warnings _ expected to be introduced next year _ could include pictures showing a skull, tumors and diseased lungs.
Wan Wai-yee, executive director of Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, charged that Philip Morris was exploiting a loophole in anti-smoking laws to attract smokers, according to the South China Morning Post.
A spokeswoman for Philip Morris in Hong Kong, whose name was not given, told the Post that the plastic covers were not meant to be reused.
"It's something that we do to offer our consumers more choice," the spokeswoman was quoted as saying.
A man who answered the phone at the company's Hong Kong office on Sunday said no one was available for comment.
The Hong Kong government says graphic warnings will be a strong deterrent and that studies have shown they make smokers less inclined to buy tobacco products and more inclined to quit. Canada, Singapore, Thailand and Brazil have adopted similar warnings.
But tobacco companies have argued against the proposal, saying that the graphics stigmatize smokers and violate free speech.
As of 2003, 15.3 percent of the Hong Kong population 15 or older, or 867,000 people, were smokers, AP reported. V.A.