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March, 2009:

Use Tax Cash For Tobacco Control

Updated on Mar 12, 2009 – SCMP

While applauding the 50 per cent tobacco tax rise, discerning Hongkongers will ask how the extra money is to be spent.

It is already apparent that the public will need more services to help people quit smoking.

Some designated tobacco control agencies, like the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, should receive more resources other than the dwindling government subvention, for their ever-more important mission.

In the United States, that is exactly how the administration is paying for its health bill during the current recession. When President Barack Obama signed an extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Programme on February 4, Congress agreed to raise federal cigarette taxes to help pay for the extra coverage. It is expected that the federal tax on a pack of cigarettes will increase by 160 per cent.

We have a golden opportunity to beef up the public health capacities in tobacco control. Earmarking tobacco tax for this purpose is a sensible option.

Dr W. Y. Wan, director, Public Health Consultancy Network

Tobacco Firms ‘Obstructing Global Treaty’

Business Mirror – Thursday, 12 March 2009

THE tobacco industry in Southeast Asia is “systematically obstructing” the implementation of a global treaty on curbing smoking and tobacco use, a regional advocacy network warns.

Since it took effect in 2005, the implementation of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) in the region has been undermined by “insidious tactics” of Big Tobacco, the Bangkok-based Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (Seatca) said.

“The abuses of corporations like Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International have ranged from attempting to write tobacco-control laws and blocking the passage of key legislations in the Philippines, Laos and Cambodia, and using so-called corporate social responsibility [CSR] to circumvent laws and regulations in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines,” Seatca said in a press release.

At a panel discussion during the14th World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH) in Mumbai, Seatca director Bungon Ritthiphakdee said, “Tobacco-industry interference has been the No.1 obstacle to the WHO FCTC implementation, and countries in the Asean and its neighbors now see protections against this interference as the strongest factor of the treaty.”

“The tobacco industry has aggressively expanded their business in the Asean region. They have deliberately deterred, delayed and diluted tobacco-control laws. With the WHO FCTC guidelines, advocates and public officials can finally put to a halt tobacco-industry tactics, and focus on implementing lifesaving measures to protect their citizens,” Dr. Mary Assunta, Seatca’s senior policy advisor, added.

Seatca urged all parties to the WHO FCTC to take strong measures to implement guidelines on Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC to block tobacco industry interference in regional health policies.

Government and nongovernment officials, public-health experts and tobacco-control advocates worldwide are in Mumbai for the 14th WCTOH to continue taking important steps in global tobacco control.

Seatca’s conference statement said Article 5.3 of the FCTC “is based on the premise that in public health programs, the tobacco industry is the problem, and NOT a stakeholder.”

It added that at the recent Conference of the Parties in South Africa, guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 of the FCTC was adopted, which state that there is a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public-health policy interests.”

“Also, because their products are lethal, the tobacco industry should not be granted incentives to establish or run their business. Hence, the tobacco industry can never be a partner in tobacco-control efforts.”

It said Southeast Asian countries, which are all parties to the FCTC except Indonesia, “are replete with experiences of how tobacco companies maneuvered to find ways to deter, dilute and delay tobacco-control measures.”

It added: “The region’s governments have been vulnerable to interference through the industry’s lobbying, public-relations dealings and CSR activities.”


Electronic Cigarettes Are Ruled Illegal

Updated on Mar 11, 2009 – SCMP

I refer to the report (“Electronic cigarettes are ruled illegal”, March 5).

I would like to know what clinical trials or statistical evidence Health Department director Lam Ping-yan is drawing upon when he asserts that using electronic cigarettes is dangerous to health: “Using the unregistered product was dangerous, he warned.”

According to the manufacturers of electronic cigarettes, the nicotine-delivery medium is propylene glycol, the same chemical used in discotheque and theatrical smoke machines.

It is also used as a moisturising agent in medicines, cosmetics, food, toothpaste, mouthwash and tobacco products.

Certainly, tests should be carried out, but my gut feeling is that inhaling this vapour combined with pure nicotine has got to be better than burning leaves treated with numerous chemicals and inhaling the smoke.

Nicotine-replacement therapy is recognised as an effective method for quitting smoking but, in my experience, the conventional products – gum, patches, inhalers – are poor substitutes and prohibitively expensive.

I accept that the product must be registered under the Pharmacy and Poisons Ordinance and appropriate safeguards implemented, given the amount of nicotine in a capsule.

At the same time, unless it can be proven to be more damaging than cigarettes, I urge the Hong Kong government to allow this product to be sold in Hong Kong at its current (cheaper than cigarettes) price. If the government is sincere in its claim that it wants to support smokers who want to quit, then this product must be considered.

Clive Keep, Lamma

Steep Tobacco Tax Rises

Steep tobacco tax rises do not lead to lower rates of smoking

Updated on Mar 11, 2009 – SCMP

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah told the media that the smoking population is going up and this is especially true in the case of females and youths, thus justifying a huge 50 per cent increase in tobacco tax in the budget.

However, this is not the case. The latest survey released by the Census and Statistics Department in November last year shows that the percentage of smokers in the 15 to 19 age group – that is, youths – has declined from 3.5 per cent to 2.4 per cent (“Proportion of young smokers fails”, December 4). The percentage of young female smokers dropped nearly 50 per cent, from 2 per cent to 1.2 per cent between 2005 and 2007.

The percentage of Hong Kong people who smoke has also dropped sharply – from 14 per cent to 11.8 per cent, which is the sharpest drop in recent years.

A study in the British Medical Journal in 2007 showed that cigarettes in Hong Kong were the 11th most expensive (or least affordable) in the 60 major cities in the world. With the drastic 50 per cent tax hike in the budget, Hong Kong will likely become the world’s most expensive place to smoke. Rarely have we seen the government going to such extremes. I dispute another claim by Mr Tsang, that raising tobacco tax would lead to reduced smoking rates.

The last time the government imposed a heavy increase on tobacco tax was in the early 1990s with a rise of 100 per cent.

However, smoking rates in Hong Kong throughout the 1990s did not drop either in terms of the actual number of smokers or in terms of the incidence of smoking. In fact, there was a dramatic increase in the number of smokers during that decade.

It is ironic that in Legco, as recently as last month, Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok quoted the Census and Statistics Department survey [already referred to] that between December 2007 and March 2008, the percentage of smokers in the 15 to 19 age group in Hong Kong dropped from 3.5 per cent in 2005 to 2.4 per cent.

He said: “This shows that the tobacco control measures aimed at young people have been largely effective.”

Chan Yu-chung, Mid-Levels

Macao Health Group Urges Legislation Of Tobacco Control

Xinhua – March 9, 2009

A health association in Macao has expressed their hope that the Tobacco Control Act be put into legislative procedure as soon as possible, so as to strengthen local smoking control, the Macao Daily Times reported on Sunday.

The legislation of the Tobacco Control Act can control smoking in public places and also significantly reduce the excuses of people who wanted to quit smoking, the daily quoted Au Ka Fai, the director-general of the Smoke-Quitting and Health Care Association, as saying.

Au said Macao’s current tobacco tariff has been too low, and even if it was increased a tenfold, will still be lower than that of the neighboring cities. He also suggested taking review on the tobacco tariff every year in a bid to reinforce the tobacco control in the territory.

The daily also quoted local secondary school principal, Choi Chi U, as saying that the age of the smokers was tending to drop, and the number of female smokers increased.

Since the according Tobacco Control law has yet to be legislated, what he as a school principal will do is to foster moral education on the school’s ground in order to teach students to stay away from smoke addiction, he said.

‘Winston Man’ Fought Big Tobacco To The Last

UNITED STATES – Jacqui Goddard – Mar 07, 2009

Alan Landers started smoking at nine. Later, he would become a hard-core addict – getting through 2-1/2 packs a day. Until his death last month, he was leading a multimillion-dollar courtroom crusade against the US tobacco industry after being diagnosed with lung and throat cancer.

It was a crusade that marked a big turnaround from the 1960s and 1970s, when Landers was known as the “Winston Man” and appeared on billboards and in magazine advertisements across the world promoting cigarettes with such slogans as “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

He was 68 when he died.

During his anti-smoking campaign, he visited hundreds of schools, made appearances for the World Health Organisation and testified before the US Congress.

His argument was his personal story. He told of puffing through, literally, cartons of cigarettes in photographic sessions as he sought to achieve the ideal spiral of smoke while not letting ash at the tip of the cigarette exceed a quarter-inch. He said he was not warned of the hazards of smoking and called the industry “the biggest con of the 20th century”.

He was one of 9,000 tobacco victims in Florida who tried to sue cigarette manufacturers for failing to warn that smoking carried potentially fatal health risks. To dramatise his point, Landers would rip open his shirt to show scars from his operations.

“They created the illusion that smoking was cool, but they knew when I was doing the campaign that it caused lung cancer and that it was the most addictive drug the world has ever known. They knew but they never told me,” he said in an interview weeks before his death.

“They should be held to account for having a defective product and they should be held accountable for killing people.”

In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court threw out a US$145 billion class-action lawsuit launched against tobacco manufacturers by thousands of victims and their families. But the court recommended that each of those claimants bring an individual case instead, finding that cigarette-makers had lied to cover up the dangerous and addictive properties of tobacco and that all each plaintiff had to prove was that they were harmed by an addiction to smoking.

A jury found for the plaintiff last week in the first of the 9,000 Florida cases, brought by the widow of a smoking victim. Damages are expected to run into the tens of millions of dollars. Landers’ case against RJ Reynolds, the maker of Winston cigarettes, was due in court next month.

Weeks before his death, he was on daily doses of radiotherapy and weekly chemotherapy, and struggled to breathe and talk.

“I have only two lobes left in my lungs. I have lung cancer, I have throat cancer, I have emphysema. I’m fighting for my life,” he said at the time. Emphysema is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.

At the height of the smoking trend, when cigarettes were perceived as fashionable, Landers was in demand for his suave looks.

“Looking back on my career, I am ashamed that I helped promote such a lethal and addictive product … Had I understood then what I now understand – that cigarettes are an addictive poison that kills almost 50 per cent of their users – I would never have participated in their mass marketing.”

Landers was not the first poster boy for the tobacco industry to fall victim to the product he once advertised.

Two of the so-called “Marlboro men”, actors David McLean and Dick Hammer, died of lung cancer, one in 1992 and the other in 1995, years after modelling for Marlboro cigarettes, made by the Philip Morris tobacco company.

Landers tried in vain to kick the habit, using nicotine patches and gum. In 1987, he was diagnosed with cancer in one lung. Five years later, doctors told the actor and model that it had spread to his second lung, requiring radical surgery that involved severing a nerve to his vocal cords.

In 1996, he also underwent open heart surgery and a double bypass operation, necessitated “by the residual effects of smoking”.

Months before his death, he was given the devastating news that he had a tumour on his tonsils.

Before his death he said he was living close to the poverty line; he had to beg for public donations to help pay his medical bills.

“I’ve got financial problems and I need help to fight them. But I’m determined they’re not going to beat me,” he said. “I am unwilling to give the defendants their wish: to postpone the date of my trial so much that I would die first.”

He added: “The industry put profits over people, stonewalled criticism and concealed scientific evidence from the public and its customers … I call upon the tobacco industry to compensate its victims, its former customers, who are suffering and dying from its products.”

Additional reporting by The New York Times

‘Phone-Up Cigarettes’ A Problem For Officers

Customs admits trade is hard to prosecute

Clifford Lo – Mar 06, 2009 – SCMP

A senior customs official admitted yesterday there were difficulties in cracking down on phone orders for illicit cigarettes, while announcing the arrest of 54 people and seizure of HK$7.5 million worth of illegal cigarettes in a week-long operation.

The arrests included tobacco traffickers and buyers, but none were involved in phone orders, said Chow Chi-kwong, head of the Customs and Excise Department’s revenue and general investigation bureau.

“To evade our detection, illegal traders only take orders from regular customers, or buyers are required to say a password. It is one of the obstacles we are facing,” he said.

Customs had carried out successful operations against such phone-order services in the past but it was time-consuming. He said the department was determined to deal with such tactics and would spare no effort to crack down on the trade of illicit cigarettes.

Tobacco traffickers hand out fliers across the city listing brands, a price list and contact numbers before delivering the illegal goods to buyers.

After the 50 per cent rise in tobacco duty announced in the budget, the average price of a pack of 20 cigarettes rose from HK$29 to HK$39.

Mr Chow said some tobacco traffickers also pushed up the price of illicit cigarettes by HK$10 to HK$20 for a package of 10 packs.

“Counterfeits sell for HK$60 to HK$90 a package and smuggled genuine cigarettes cost HK$120 to HK$160 a package,” he said.

The illegal trade is focused on Mong Kok, Yau Ma Tei, Sham Shui Po and Wan Chai.

Bracing itself for a possible rise in illicit activities after the increase in tobacco tax, customs stepped up enforcement to deal with the problem in a week-long operation that started on February 26. Officers made 46 arrests, including 26 buyers, in 40 cases and seized HK$130,000 worth of cigarettes. They found four storage areas for illegal cigarettes, where four people were arrested, and HK$900,000 worth of cigarettes.

To stop smuggling from the mainland, officers stepped up inspections at control points. They arrested five drivers, seized HK$6.5 million of illicit cigarettes and impounded three trucks and two cars at the Lok Ma Chau and Man Kam To checkpoints.

On Sunday, a 52-year-old man was arrested with 3,800 illicit cigarettes in his handbag and rucksack at the Lok Ma Chau border checkpoint as he returned from Shenzhen.

“We will not give criminals a chance to take advantage of the rise in tobacco duty to increase the trade of illegal cigarettes,” Mr Chow said.

While saying there was no sign of a rising trend in the trade of illegal cigarettes, he said customs would monitor events, enhance intelligence collection and step up enforcement.

The maximum penalty for trading in illicit cigarettes is a HK$1 million fine and two-year imprisonment. Mr Chow urged people to report such activity on customs’ 24-hour hotline, 2545 6182.

Customs dealt with 1,570 cases of illegal cigarette smuggling, distribution, sales and storage last year, 14 per cent fewer than in 2007.

Evidence Backs Tobacco Curbs

Mar 06, 2009 – SCMP

Chris Robinson’s letter could have been written by the public relations department of the tobacco industry (“Punitive antics just put smokers on the defensive”, March 2).

I must take issue with his claim that none of the efforts to curb smoking, including increased taxes, have worked.

In North America, Australia and Europe, cigarette smoking has declined drastically in the last few years which is why the tobacco industry now targets, with multibillion dollar marketing and advertising budgets, the undeveloped world, especially countries such as India, China and nations in Africa.

Perhaps tobacco taxes should increase 10-fold every year. That way the income generated would pay for the billions of dollars it costs the world’s taxpayers for the medical bills of all those smokers who suffer illness.

Peter Dann, Sai Kung

Smugglers Beware

Message from Clear The Air:

Tobacco smuggling is currently punishable under the Dutiable Commodities Ordinance with a fine of $1,000,000 and 2 years’ imprisonment, and under the Import and Export Ordinance with a fine of $2,000,000 and 7 years’ imprisonment. If counterfeit cigarettes are involved, the offender is also liable to a fine of $500,000 and 5 years’ imprisonment under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance. Enhanced sentence and confiscation of crime proceeds, under the Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance are applicable if the offences are classified by the court as an organized crime.

Levy Increase Not The Answer

Updated on Mar 05, 2009 – SCMP

The desire to curb teenage smoking seems to dominate government officials to such an extent that they overlooked that the taxes on tobacco amount to regressive tax.

Smokers, many of whom are lower on the financial totem pole, are already reeling in this economic crisis and will bear the brunt of yet another ill-conceived tax policy. When prices of cigarettes are much higher than on the mainland illegal smuggling ensues and there have already been press reports that this is happening.

Past cigarette tax rises have not arrested the increase of smokers in Hong Kong. Reckoning with the futility of the policy has been deferred by a government influenced by lobby groups.

As many smokers will tell you giving up smoking and replacing it with a salubrious habit takes tremendous determination.

We should be lending sympathy to them and not harbouring scorn bordering on retribution.

The government and the lobby groups in this economic crisis should be managing the welfare of all Hong Kong citizens. People on low incomes should be receiving aid and not be paradoxically subjected to a levy.

Raising the cigarette tax to curb teenage smoking is a handier excuse for evading a less appealing remedy to an intractable problem.

Similar to preventing high school pregnancies curbing teenage smoking is the responsibility of schools and parents that entails effort and time.

To think that raising the cigarette tax will magically lower teenage smoking is akin to the admission that manipulating the price of condoms will have an effect on teenage sex.

Jack Teh, Clear Water Bay