State-owned Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp (TTL) came under fire yesterday from the anti-tobacco John Tung Foundation over last week’s relaunch of “La Rose 520” menthol cigarettes, which the group said was obviously aimed at expanding the smoking population among women and the young.
“In the 21st century, when other advanced countries are devoting increased efforts to tobacco control among women and the youth, it is inconceivable that a government-owned corporation would conspire to harm the health of this group in our nation,” said Lin Ching-li (林清麗), director of the non-governmental organization’s tobacco control division.
The cigarettes sport heart-shaped filters, pink packaging and are rose-flavored, Lin said, adding that the number “520” corresponds to president-elect Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) inauguration date.
“The number is also commonly used by younger generations as meaning ‘I love you’ because the number sounds like the phrase in Mandarin,” he said.
Since cigarette smokers have a 70 percent loyalty rate to their brands of choice, Lin said the new product could only be interpreted as TTL’s effort to open new markets.
“The cuteness factor of the product is obviously made to appeal to young girls,” she said.
The product was first developed in 1999, Lin said, but anti-tobacco activists got wind from an anonymous source within the TTL before the cigarettes hit the shelves and managed to stall the launch during a three-month fight in the legislature.
“Seeing it resurrected on the market [nine years after such a battle], I worry that peer influence and the delicate packaging will bend young girls’ minds about smoking,” she said.
In addition to the obvious health risks, littering of cigarette butts and the prevalence of fires started by cigarettes — as much as 15 percent of all accidental fires — make tobacco a costly social burden, Lin said.
“Since the implementation of health and welfare taxes on cigarette sales in 2002, a lot of money has been spent on tobacco control. The results, however, have been far from positive,” she said.
While 40 percent of adult males are smokers today — down from 47 percent in 2002 — the figures aren’t as good as they might appear, she said.
“Overall tobacco sales have increased from 2002, indicating that the smoking population has shifted to teenagers and females. The sale of 520 La Rose would very likely aggravate this problem,” she said.
As for a solution to the problem, Lin said the issue was now in the hands of the government.
“Any anti-La Rose 520 efforts could turn into a marketing campaign for the new cigarettes; instead, the problem would be very easily fixed if the government realizes the dire consequences the cigarettes would bring and [removes them from the market],” she said.