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March 15th, 2009:

Study On Minors Buying Cigarettes Draws Fire

Raymond Ma, SCMP – Updated on Mar 15, 2009

A local non-governmental organisation with an apparently anti-smoking agenda has been blasted for giving money to children as young as 13 and asking them to buy cigarettes.

The Committee on Youth Smoking Prevention (YSP) recruited 12 youths between the ages of 13 and 17, and between May and August last year instructed them to try to buy cigarettes from nearly 1,400 shops across the city as part of a study to determine the prevalence of shops selling cigarettes to children, the group said.

The committee has previously provoked the ire of anti-smoking groups after it was revealed to have accepted at least one donation of HK$20 million from the now-defunct Tobacco Institute of Hong Kong – of which cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris was a major partner.

In the group’s recent study, each young person, accompanied by an adult, was given an Octopus card and told to try to buy cigarettes, spokesman Li Cheong-lung said.

If the shopkeeper signalled willingness to sell, the children were instructed they were to end the transaction and leave the shop. The exercise was conducted to show the ease with which minors could buy cigarettes.

But news of the study angered anti-smoking lobbyists, who said they were concerned that the children involved were being unnecessarily and prematurely exposed to cigarettes.

Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health chairwoman Lisa Lau said: “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. If they are giving kids money to buy cigarettes, then they are setting them up [to be smokers]. It’s one of their strategies to promote cigarette sales for the tobacco industry.”

James Middleton, lobby group Clear the Air’s anti-tobacco committee chairman, said the study would encourage minors to smoke because it highlighted the ease with which they could buy cigarettes. “Peer pressure is the thing which gets kids smoking,” he said.

“So the kids’ attention has been brought to the fact that now they can go anywhere and buy cigarettes, and that’s exactly what the tobacco companies want.”

None of the children involved in the study were made available for interview, despite repeated requests by the South China Morning Post.

Mr Li said the children and adults involved in the study were volunteers and only non-smokers had been chosen. Written consent had been obtained from the children’s parents.

In response to the story, tobacco giant Philip Morris said it “does not want children to smoke and we do not want retailers to sell our tobacco products to children”.

“YSP operates independently and we never ask [them] what [they] will do and how money is spent,” a spokesman said. He confirmed that the company had been one of the group’s major sponsors since it was set up in 2001.

Philip Morris declined to disclose the size of its most recent donation to the NGO, or when it was made.

The survey found that 73 per cent of shops were willing to sell cigarettes to minors.