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April 10th, 2008:

Lax Tobacco Tax Remains Unattended

Written by ADRIAN WAN CHUN-HO – Thursday, 10 April 2008 00:00

Although many had voiced support for the idea of raising the tobacco tax, the government thinks education is a better way of cutting smoking, and so left the tax unchanged in the Budget.

Some experts believe that a rise in tobacco tax can highly reduce youth smoking, yet the government is still leaving the current law unattended.

Secretary for Finance John Tsang Chun-wah announced in the Budget on February 27 that “education is more important than a tax increase when considering stamping out the smoking habit in Hong Kong”.

Anti-tobacco campaigners such as Committee on Youth Smoking Prevention (YSP), Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health (COSH) and Clear the Air, however, believed that a tobacco tax increase would be very effective.

Chief Executive of YSP Li Cheong-lung said that he was disappointed at the government for not taking his committee’s demand of doubling the tax into account in the Budget.

“Since 2005, we have been urging the government to lift the duty to reduce underage smoking,” he said, “when the price of cigarettes goes up, many teenagers smoke less or quit altogether.”

If such an increase were introduced, the tax payable on a pack of 20 cigarettes would be raised from about $16 to $32.

James Middleton, a member of Clear the Air, a volunteer group committed to combat air pollution in Hong Kong, said a ten per cent increase in tobacco tax can reduce youth smoking by seven per cent and overall smoking by four per cent.

“Tobacco tax is proven worldwide the most effective way of preventing and reducing smoking. It is the most feared available preventative measure by the tobacco companies,” he said.

The World Bank (WB) and World Health Organisation (WHO) both advocate population-wide prevention of chronic diseases.

Tobacco use is alongside other detrimental factors like improper diet, inadequate physical activity and excessive alcohol consumption, which cause chronic diseases, according to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), an international treaty for tobacco control.

“The government is obliged under FCTC rules to regularly increase tobacco tax,” Mr Middleton said.

The WB has issued guidelines on appropriate tax level. They admonish high-income regions, like Hong Kong, to impose a 65 to 80 per cent tax on each cigarette.

In Hong Kong, the retail price of a pack of cigarettes is $32, of which $16.08 is tax. Tax per cigarette is thus tad higher than 50 per cent.

A regular smoker, said that if the tobacco tax were doubled, it would undoubtedly affect his accustomed smoking pattern.

If a pack of cigarettes cost as much as $48, I don’t think I could afford a pack a day. It would be a luxury, he said.

Albert Kwan Yui-leung, 19, a regular smoker, said that if the tobacco tax were doubled, it would undoubtedly affect his accustomed smoking pattern.

“If a pack of cigarettes cost as much as $48, I don’t think I could afford a pack a day. It would be a luxury,” he said.

Mr John Tsang said in the Budget: “We need to take a more balanced approach. We already have a high tax there, if we raised it at this time, it would increase smuggling.”

Mr Middleton from Clear the Air argued that, “He [John Tsang] is pandering to the business lobby and playing with peoples’ lives in doing so.”

Concerned groups such as YSP, COSH and Clear the Air said the current tobacco tax in the city is relatively low compared with New York and Britain where the tax on a packet of cigarettes is $28 and $62 respectively.

Mr Li from YSP commented, “The government can say whatever it justifies. I should say, however, that every time the tobacco tax was increased in the recent 20 years, the number of smokers fell.”

Tsang’s comment in the Budget may call into question the government’s confidence in guarding against smuggling.

C. K. Ng, Senior Inspector from the Customs and Excise Department, said reassuringly that “Tobacco smuggling in Hong Kong has been subsiding.”

According to Mr Ng, the quantity of each illicit shipments has shrunk from 200 cases (two million sticks) several years ago to around 100 cases (one million sticks) in the recent two years; a steady rise in revenue collected from tobacco suggested the shift of consumption from illicit to legitimate cigarettes; and illicit cigarettes are usually sold by means of telephone orders instead of blatant touting in streets.

Asked to comment on the enforcement against smuggling tobacco, Ng said, “The current enforcement against illicit cigarettes is deemed effective. However, when there are any signs of rampant smuggling, we [the Excise and Customs Department] would consider stricter measures.”

Mr John Tsang said in the Budget: “”If all the children and the adults of Hong Kong can learn all the bad things about smoking, I think that would be a more permanent way of reducing smoking. We could raise the tax further. But there are other things we can do better.”

Dr Barry Tam, Head of Tobacco Control Office (TCO), elucidated how his team plans to educate the public through various means.

He said there would be promotion of the harmful effect of smoking and second-hand smoke, smoke cessation and smoke free environment through media publicity, community involvement programmes, interactive education theatre programmes, youth tobacco control advocate training programmes and outreaching school-based health talks.

“1,324 people a year die of passive smoking in Hong Kong; 50 per cent of smokers will be killed by their addiction,” Mr Middleton said.

Dr Tam said the Department of Health (DH) would also strengthen publicity such as TV and radio announcements or public interest (APIs) in order to enhance public support so as to help building a smoke-free environment in Hong Kong.

Tobacco facts

* Tobacco causes around 13,500 deaths per day.
* Half of children are exposed to tobacco smoke at home.
* 47.5% of males smoke.
* 10.3% of females smoke.
* A cigarette is the only legally available consumer product that kills through normal use.

Source: WHO

Smoking Ban To Cover All Schools

Apr 10, 2008 – SCMP

The country’s health departments are planning a complete smoking ban in schools from next month. The Beijing News quoted the Ministry of Health as saying nursery, primary and middle schools would not be allowed to have smoking rooms. The ministry said the ban would be introduced as part of activities to mark World No Tobacco Day on May 31.