A cigarette brand is under fire for bearing the name of one of China’s scientific marvels: the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST.
The Chinese Association on Tobacco Control (CATC) on Thursday appealed to have the cigarette’s trademark revoked, accusing its manufacturer of “maliciously” registering the FAST trademark even before the telescope project itself could do so.
“The tobacco company ‘speculated’ the name of this national treasure, registered it, and used it as a trademark,” CATC wrote in a letter published on its website. “We’re not just astonished — we’re extremely indignant!”
On Monday, state-owned media outlet Science and Technology Daily reported that the FAST cigarette brand, produced by a tobacco company in the southwestern Yunnan province, had become popular in neighboring Guizhou, where the world’s largest space telescope is located.
An enormous undertaking, the FAST project was led by the late scientist Nan Rendong from 1994 and began operating in September 2016. Hongyunhonghe Tobacco Group — one of the country’s largest tobacco companies and an affiliate of China Tobacco, the state-owned tobacco monopoly — registered trademarks for FAST in March 2017 and April 2018. The company unveiled its first FAST-branded cigarettes in July 2018.
According to Science and Technology Daily, the Yunnan-based tobacco company did not contact the National Astronomical Observatories (NAO), an official institution under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, when registering and using the FAST trademarks and FAST-related branding.
NAO finally trademarked “China FAST” in 2019, and over 1,100 FAST-related terms have now been registered on the website of the National Intellectual Property Administration. According to Science and Technology Daily, NAO at some point filed a legal notice protesting against the FAST cigarettes, though nothing came of it.
At the cigarette brand’s product launch event in Guizhou, the director of the provincial branch of China Tobacco said the FAST cigarettes had been produced to memorialize the astronomer Nan.
“The FAST telescope gave birth to this pack of FAST cigarettes today,” the director said at the time according to a now-deleted article on Hongyunhonghe’s website. The cigarettes’ packaging features a small image of the space telescope against a backdrop of planets and constellations with the letters F-A-S-T printed along the top.
The front and back labeling of FAST cigarettes. From @每日财经 on Weibo
“All these actions involving FAST (the telescope) were to ride the coattails of its good reputation to sell products and generate profits,” CATC wrote. “It’s really hard to view this as a tribute instead of blasphemy.”
In its letter, CATC appealed to both the National Intellectual Property Administration and China Tobacco to revoke the trademark. At the same time, the association also suggested that cigarette packs should be improved by featuring more health warnings and less or no promotional content.
China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco, with the entire domestic industry controlled by the government. According to the latest data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the smoking rate among people over 15 was 26.6% in 2018, and over half of all men in China smoke compared with just 2.1% of women. The country has aimed to reduce its national smoking rate to below 20% by 2030.
When Sixth Tone called China Tobacco’s Guizhou operations, an employee said she was not aware of the controversy and referred our reporter to the Yunnan division. Sixth Tone’s calls to China Tobacco Yunnan Industrial Co. Ltd. and Hongyunhonghe Tobacco Group went unanswered.
Li Enze, a Beijing-based lawyer at Yipai Law Firm, told Sixth Tone that the tobacco company may have violated China’s national trademark law, which says symbols of national entities, as well as symbols that mislead consumers about a product’s quality or place of origin, cannot be registered as trademarks.
“FAST is the pride of our country, and a cigarette with that name will probably encourage members of the public — and especially minors — to smoke,” Li said. “It might also have infringed the rights of all the participants of the FAST project, including the designers, builders, and administrators.”
A commentary Tuesday in The Beijing News said this case should serve as a wake-up call to scientific institutions to protect their intellectual property, such as the Tiangong space station and Beidou navigation satellite system. “National-level significant projects should remember to apply for trademarks as soon as possible,” the commentary said.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: People Visual)