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March 1st, 2009:

More Studies Slam Secondhand Smoke

Two new studies add even more weight to the existing evidence that secondhand smoke is a serious health threat. Writing in BMJ (Vol. 330; No. 7486:277-281 and 287-288), researchers from Europe report that kids exposed to secondhand smoke have a higher risk of lung cancer, while researchers in Hong Kong link secondhand smoke to a greater risk of death from any cause — including lung cancer.

The European team, led by epidemiologist Paolo Vineis of Imperial College, London, studied more than 123,000 people who were either nonsmokers or had given up smoking at least 10 years earlier. All the participants provided information on their exposure to secondhand smoke, including where they were exposed and whether they had been exposed as children.

People who had been exposed to secondhand smoke for many hours every day in childhood had more than triple the risk of developing lung cancer compared to people who were not exposed to secondhand smoke as children. Former smokers were more at risk of developing lung cancer than people who never smoked.

The Hong Kong team, led by Sarah McGhee of the University of Hong Kong, analyzed the causes of death for more than 5,600 nonsmokers. Those who were exposed to secondhand smoke in the home were 24% more likely to die from any cause, including lung cancer, other lung diseases, other cancers, heart disease, and stroke if there was one smoker at home. If there were two smokers in the household, their chance of dying increased by 74%.

The Dial-A-Pack Cigarette Gangs

Clifford Lo – Updated on Mar 01, 2009 – SCMP

Illegal cigarettes are being sold for as little as HK$6 a pack to attract customers – part of a sophisticated trafficking operation designed to elude police and customs officers – say law enforcement sources.

The gangs hand out fliers across the city listing brands, a price list and contact numbers – or post them in residents’ letter boxes – and take orders by phone, the sources say.

Customs chiefs are braced for a rise in tobacco smuggling following the 50 per cent rise in tobacco duties announced in last week’s budget speech. The increase pushed the average price of a pack of 20 cigarettes up from HK$29 to HK$39.

The government hopes the rise will persuade between one in five and one in 10 smokers to quit the habit.

“After taking orders, illicit cigarettes are delivered to your home or pickups are arranged in parks or at MTR station exits,” a government source said.

“To avoid being caught in a sting, illegal traffickers will observe buyers and the location of the transaction before doing business. New buyers may be asked to leave money on a park bench before being told where to pick up the goods.”

Mainland visitors, housewives, drug addicts and Vietnamese residents had been recruited to distribute the goods and run the business, this source said. Counterfeits sell for HK$6 to HK$10 a pack; smuggled genuine cigarettes cost HK$15 to HK$17. Another source said most buyers of illegal cigarettes were from lowincome families and the illegal traders did most of their business in public housing estates. Customs officials said crackdowns on areas where the gangs operate had cut into their sales. However, authorities were concerned that the rise in tobacco duties would spur an increase in the trade.

Cross Street in Wan Chai is one of the places where the illegal trade flourishes. The vendors hide the cigarettes in an alley or nearby building.

“Now traffickers have resorted to a phone-order service to evade detection and arrest,” one source said. “Some traffickers only take orders from regular customers or those who can say a password.”

The Customs and Excise Department dealt with 1,570 cases of illegal-cigarette smuggling, distribution, sales and storage last year, 14 per cent fewer than in 2007. Officers arrested 1,170 people and seized more than 73 million cigarettes.

Most of the illegal cigarettes are smuggled from the mainland.

Ben Leung Lun-cheung, head of the department’s land boundary command, said: “We are determined to crack down on the import, storage and sale of illicit cigarettes.”

Raising Taxes Just The First Step On Anti-Smoking Front

Updated on Mar 01, 2009 – SCMP

Stepped-up smuggling activities are to be expected after the government raised tobacco duty by 50 per cent. But the brazen manner in which some criminals hand out fliers in busy streets and drop them in residential mailboxes to promote the sale of illegal cigarettes is deeply troubling. Customs and police have anticipated such developments; they must make sure they have adequate resources and manpower to nip such criminal activities in the bud.

It was right to raise the duty on cigarettes; we had not done so since 2002. As a result, our city had been selling some of the cheapest cigarettes in the developed world. Officials had cited the danger of encouraging tobacco smuggling as a reason to avoid raising taxes. Now they have bitten the bullet. By making smoking expensive, it will help deter people from starting the habit and encourage addicts to quit. The revised duty will not only help boost government coffers at a time of a rising deficit, but save many lives. It is especially important to discourage youngsters from taking up the deadly habit.

However, law enforcement against smugglers and illegal sellers must be coupled with education and medical services to help smokers quit. And anti-smoking messages should be promoted. Unfortunately, with an illegal pack selling for as little as HK$6, more smokers may be tempted to buy illegal cigarettes in this downturn. Such people may need to be nudged in the right direction.

Is it not more sensible to quit than to resort to dealing with criminals and waste money on illegal tobacco that will damage one’s health? But to get this message across, more community resources and campaign drives are needed. The Department of Health and some non-government groups run free or highly subsidised smoking-cessation services. Schools should also be given more resources to educate young people, but with more effective and creative messages so they get the point. This summer will see the smoking ban extended to all enclosed public spaces. Many bars are lobbying to extend their exemption from the ban. Officials must stick to their guns, because our city is finally moving in the right direction on the anti-smoking front.