Anti-smoking lobby groups can take a degree of comfort from the decision of the state-run Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp (TTLC) on Wednesday to remove the number "520" from the name of a recently launched cigarette brand.
The decision to remove the numerals was made after TTLC came under pressure from campaigners who accused it of targeting the cigarettes at young people and trying to capitalize on the inauguration of president-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) — “520” means “I love you” in text messaging culture and also happens to be the date of Ma’s swearing-in.
In announcing the decision, company officials disingenuously said that the product launch late last month “had nothing to do with the inauguration of the new president,” while rejecting the anti-smoking groups’ arguments that the new brand was designed to appeal to young women in particular.
With a rose-like flavor, a heart-shaped filter and pink packaging, it is unlikely that these cigarettes were ever going to appeal to older male smokers.
The company’s announcement appears even less credible given that international tobacco conglomerates have targeted young, female smokers in the last few years to boost flagging sales around the globe.
In an interview in January last year, TTLC chairman Martin Tsai (蔡木霖) said that the success of the company’s “Gentle” (尊爵) cigarette brand was another example of how the corporation was targeting young customers.
A more important issue than the company’s cynical attempts to attract a new generation of smokers, however, is whether the state should be involved in selling these kinds of products in the first place.
Its role becomes all the more questionable when one considers how much money the government’s National Health Insurance Bureau has to spend each year treating patients suffering from tobacco and alcohol-related illnesses.
It is simply indefensible for the state to spend tax dollars promoting commercial products that harm people and eat into health infrastructure.
The idea of government owning a company that sells alcohol and cigarettes is an anachronism dating back to the post-war monopoly period when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime had to be involved in absolutely everything.
This may have been acceptable a few decades ago when the effects of smoking were not properly understood, but now that so much empirical evidence exists demonstrating the damage that smoking and alcohol consumption can cause, there is no way out for government advocates of this corporation.
Admittedly, the government has been trying for more than six years to privatize TTLC — that is, since accession to the WTO in 2001 required opening the tobacco and alcohol markets to foreign competition.
However, as with the banking sector, this has met with predictable resistance from the company’s labor union.
It would therefore be best for all concerned if the new government took advantage of its fresh start and swiftly privatized the TTLC.
Then the authorities could concentrate on the roles that a state ought to perform: regulation and enforcement.