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Spare thought for smokers: health chief

Any increase in the tobacco tax will depend on whether smokers can afford it, says health chief Ko Wing-man.

Qi Luo

Monday, February 23, 2015

Any increase in the tobacco tax will depend on whether smokers can afford it, says health chief Ko Wing-man.

“We will definitely adjust the tobacco tax at the proper time to control the percentage of smokers,” he said.

“But each time we consider increasing the tax, we take into account the affordability for citizens, especially those at the grassroots level.”

Ko also said that hiking the tax is just one way to reduce the number of smokers, and that there are other options for the government to achieve the same goal.

Ko did not say whether Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah will raise the tax in the budget on Wednesday.

The Council on Smoking and Health has suggested it be doubled.

“We urge the government to raise the tobacco tax by 100 percent in 2015-16, to encourage smokers to quit and to reduce the smoking prevalence to single digits in one to two years,” it said in an open letter to Tsang.

COSH’s proposal would boost the price of a pack of cigarettes to HK$93, from HK$55. It said increasing the tax is the most effective way to encourage people to quit.

It said it will be “disappointed” if the tax isn’t put up.

COSH also believes raising the tax won’t drive people to buy illicit cigarettes, saying: “WHO [World Health Organization] has proved that there is no causal relationship between raising tobacco taxes and illicit cigarettes. In fact, illicit cigarettes also persist in countries with low tobacco taxes.”

Smoke’s up: Is doubling tobacco tax a wise move?

Ahead of this year’s budget speech on February 25, the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health has called on the Legislative Council for tobacco tax to be doubled in a bid to deter people from smoking. This would see the average price of a packet of cigarettes rise from $55 to a whopping $93, something that would be in line with countries like the UK. It’s certainly close to the average price of a packet in Australia, which is around $94. The proposed hike seems to be simply aimed at putting smokers off the habit by hitting them where it always hurts the most – right in the pocket. EDIT: On February 25 2015, a 20% per stick increase on cigarettes was announced as part of the 2015-16 Hong Kong Government Budget with immediate effect. As a result, the average retail price pack increased from an average of $50 to approximately $54.

Just over one in 10 of us smoke in Hong Kong – 10.7 percent to be precise. It even brought together Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung in 2010 rom-com Love in a Puff. When compared to other developed countries, this figure seems low. The smoking prevalence rate in Australia, for instance, is 13.3 percent, versus 17.8 percent in the USA and, higher still, 19 percent in the UK. But, nevertheless, some of the powers that be reckon it’s still worth tackling here due to the health risks to that 10.7 percent alone. And, as the World Health Organisation highlights, ‘increasing the price of tobacco through higher taxes is the single most effective way to encourage tobacco users to quit and prevent children from starting to smoke’.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Hong Kong’s leading anti-tobacco campaigners – which include the Council on Smoking and Health (COSH), the Anti-Cancer Society and the Dental Association – have been ardently lobbying the government for an increase in tax. In an open letter addressed to financial secretary John Tsang at the start of February, local anti-tobacco organisations outlined the loss of more than 7,000 lives annually from smoking-related diseases. That means the taxpayer foots much of the high costs of medical expenses.

A study by COSH, released last month, found that increases in tobacco tax over the past three decades have correlated with drops in daily smoking prevalence. “When [smokers] find that the tobacco price has increased, then they will take action. It has an immediate effect,” says Vienna Lai, the council’s executive director. Lai thinks that if tobacco tax were to be doubled, ‘within one or two years the smoking preference in HK could be lowered down to single digits [under 10 percent]’.

We take to the streets to gauge retailers’ opinions on the proposed tobacco tax increase. “The government keeps increasing the tax anyway,” says Ms Lai, a street vendor in Wan Chai. “It’s no big deal. It doesn’t make much difference. If they already smoke, they’ll keep smoking.” The same scepticism is shown by Ms Ling, a sales assistant at an international chain of convenience stores. She says: “It’ll have an impact on sales but it won’t stop people from smoking.” Helen Chan Ching-han, centre supervisor at the Integrated Centre on Smoking Cessation, disagrees, though. She notes that over the past few decades, tobacco tax increases ‘always motivate smokers to quit and the demand [for services] increases suddenly’. The proposed tax increase, she says, ‘will really affect those with low incomes, as a packet of cigarettes may cost as much as a meal for the family’.

We also ask a handful of smokers how they foresee an increase in tobacco tax affecting their consumption. David Wong, a local 23-year-old, tells us: “I’ll either smoke less or I won’t smoke any more. Cigarettes are really expensive already. For people who smoke, it would have a big effect.” By contrast, though, 32-year-old expat Catherine Davies doesn’t think that the proposed increase in price would be enough for her to stop. “I think it’s good in terms of discouraging people from smoking,” she says. “I won’t cut down, though, because it’s really not that much.”

It all begs the question – just how much would it take to stop Hongkongers from smoking? COSH’s survey found that current smokers, on average, reckon that the price for a packet should be increased to $171 to effectively motivate them to quit, which suggests there’s still a long way for anti-tobacco lobbyists to go.

One issue that raising tobacco tax can’t deal with is the proliferation of illicit cigarettes. Figures show that the majority of illicit cigarettes seized by Customs and Excise are smuggled into Hong Kong from the Mainland and, in 2011, approximately 40 percent of them were counterfeits. In last year’s budget speech, the Financial Secretary announced plans to step up enforcement against this illegal cigarette trade.

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco – earning it the appropriate nickname ‘the smoking dragon’. A packet of cigarettes in our closest neighbour costs an average of $17 and there are an estimated 300 million smokers throughout the country. Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry is a lucrative source of revenue for the Chinese government. COSH works closely with tobacco control associations in China. However, it’s clear that the Chinese attitude to smoking is unlikely to change much in the near future, posing questions over whether a tax hike in our city would simply encourage more illegal trading.

A spokesperson from the Coalition on Tobacco Affairs, which is opposed to an increase in tax, tells us that ‘another steep tobacco tax increase would only fuel the already rampant illicit tobacco trade’. The group cites figures from an Asia-wide study conducted by Oxford Economics, which show that, in 2013, Hong Kong’s illicit cigarette consumption rate stood at more than 30 percent, costing the Government $3.2b in excise tax revenues. The coalition recommends, instead, ‘a long-term policy of moderate and regular excise tax [that] increases in line with inflation and can help to achieve the Government’s tobacco control objectives without driving smokers to the illicit market’. Predictably, anti-tobacco groups dispel these statistics, arguing that they are skewed by doubtful research methods and tobacco companies’ self-interest.

Whether tobacco tax should be frozen or increased is an age-old debate, encompassing all manner of questions. There’s scarcely room to mention allegations of corruption and cronyism, infringement of liberties and other control measures like advertising regulations and expansion of smoke-free areas. Recent speculation by the media, though, casts doubt on an increase in tax this coming year, with news that the Financial Secretary is still assessing the effect of last year’s tax. This is good news for those opposed to new tax hikes, like the Coalition on Tobacco Affairs.

However, Professor Lam Tai-hing, from Hong Kong University’s School of Public Health, asserts that ‘if an increase in tax is not imposed, the government is obviously not taking public health seriously enough’. He emphatically urges the Financial Secretary to ‘increase the amount that the government collects and put it into those services and resources that will incentivise smokers to stop. Use the money to benefit those who have given up and those who are giving up. Please increase tobacco tax’. And so the debate rages on…

The annual tobacco tax rate is announced in the Financial Secretary’s 2015-2016 Budget Speech on February 25. Any alterations are expected to be enacted with immediate effect.

EDIT: On February 25 2015, an immediate 20% per stick increase was announced as part of the 2015-16 Hong Kong Government Budget. As a result, the average retail price pack increased from an average of $50 to approximately $54. (oops, wrong year Ms Foster, it was 2014)


COSH Advocates a 100% Tobacco Tax Hike to Further Lower Smoking Prevalence


Double tobacco tax, Council on Smoking and Health urges Hong Kong government

Clear the Air says:

YES this request shown in SCMP below was one year ago in 2015, and what did the Almighty do (aka John Tsang, Financial Secretary) ?

– well, absolutely nothing! He must prefer gathering the profits tax from the tobacco companies instead and thereby knowingly ignoring a binding

WHO International Instrument lodged with the UN Treaties office.

So here we are in 2016 and COSH, the Government Council on Smoking OR Health  funded body of experts with a deputy director of the Health Department on their Panel, again recommended an increase in tobacco tax to Almighty Tsang, and what did Almighty Tsang do?

– well he said in his budget he was going to provide more hospital beds and no mention of the required preventative measure excise tax increase.

COSH are clear on what they were repeatedly asking of the Almighty: obey the WHO FCTC Treaty requirements binding Hong Kong!

Here is the COSH overpolite response to the nondescript 2016 Almighty’s Budget, on non- preventative healthcare:

So much for the Almighty’s Duty of Care to the people of Hong Kong and the smokers and the inquisitive youth, one of every two of these smokers will DIE, slowly and painfully from their inexpensive habit.

But the Amighty’s arrogance cuts far deeper; COSH is a Government funded body and the Financial Secretary has repeatedly ignored their expert advice and openly failed to follow the FCTC Treaty requirements.

Is this COSH, a Value-for-Money Organisation then if the Almighty can just repeatedly ignore their expertise?

Is it better to Prevent youth starting smoking, or to have to treat the effects of tobacco: nicotine addiction, cancer, emphysema and COPD, loss of productivity, increased health care, just build more hospital beds for them?

Is it Value-for-Money to use tax-payer money to subvent the tobacco companies, which Almighty Tsang repeatedly does, just pay for more hospital beds to treat the ravages caused by the tobacco companies and more doctors, nurses and medicines; instead of prevention of addiction by following WHO FCTC directives (increase tax annually, also increase tax in excess of the inflation rate) as a supposed ratified party to the FCTC Treaty ?

And why is Hong Kong not suing the tobacco companies for the costs of healthcare caused by the use of their consumer product?


An anti-smoking body has told the government it should double tobacco tax in a bid to reduce the habit among Hongkongers.

The Council on Smoking and Health (COSH) proposes that a 100 per cent tax increase should to be implemented in the next fiscal year, in the hope of cutting the smoking rate from 10.7 per cent, to a single digit figure, between 9.5 and 9.9 per cent, in one to two years.

“At least now we have a preliminary goal and hope the smoking rate will have a further drop in the future,” said the council’s chairman, Antonio Kwong Cho-shing.

The proposal was supported by a survey on tobacco control policy, jointly conducted by COSH and the University of Hong Kong from May to September last year. Some 2,419 people were surveyed, including 800 current smokers, 800 former smokers and 819 people who had never smoked.

More than 65 per cent of the respondents replied that the 11.8 per-cent increase in tobacco tax last year was not effective in bringing smokers to quit, while 72.9 per cent supported increasing tobacco tax annually.

The retail price of a pack of cigarettes should be increased from the current HK$55 to HK$106, the respondents suggested as a mean average. The smokers went even further, suggesting on average that the price should be raised to HK$171.

COSH’s executive director, Vienna Lai Wai-yin, said that increasing tobacco tax is effective in encouraging smokers to quit. “This is more influential among youngsters and the elderly who are more price responsive,” she said.

She added that the World Health Organisation suggested tobacco tax as an “effective and important means” to reduce tobacco consumption.

Tobacco tax in the city was raised 300 per cent in 1983, which lead to a 4.6 per cent decline in the smoking rate over two years. However, tobacco tax has been frozen 12 times since 1999 with only two significant increases – a 50 per cent hike in 2009 and 41.5 per cent rise in 2011.

According to government thematic household survey reports, the smoking prevalence of people aged 15 or above dropped from 11.8 per cent in 2008 to 10.7 per cent in 2012. Secondary school pupils showed a more significant drop from 6.9 per cent to 3 per cent.

“If tax can increase 300 per cent, we will totally support it. It is indeed more effective than television advertisements,” said Professor Lam Tai-hing from the HKU School of Public Health.

COSH urged the government to allocate more resources towards smoking cessation and education, as tax revenue from tobacco products increased to HK$5.8 billion in 2013.

The current tax rate on a price of cigarettes is 69 per cent.

Source URL (modified on Jan 7th 2015, 5:43pm):

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