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October 12th, 2009:

Smoke penalties spark avalanche of quit inquiries – Doctors want tax rise in policy address to cut smoking further

Ng Yuk-hang, SCMP

The number of people trying to quit smoking has more than doubled this year after the government stepped up anti-tobacco measures.

But doctors have urged Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to step up efforts further by increasing the tobacco tax in his coming policy address.

In the first nine months of the year 10,923 people called the Department of Health’s quit-smoking hotline, up from 4,335 in all of last year.

In that time the department’s clinics handled 432 new cases, up from 329 in the whole of last year.

The jump in August, a month before introduction of a HK$1,500 fixed penalty for smoking breaches, was especially dramatic. A total of 922 people called the hotline, compared to just 301 in the same month last year, a 300 per cent increase.

A department spokesman said the callers were mostly aged 30 to 49. Of those who visited the clinics, about 40 per cent successfully quit the habit within a year, on a par with the world’s average.

About 10 cessation clinics, operated by the department, Tung Wah Group of Hospitals and the Hospital Authority, offer a 12-week counselling programme for quitters. Callers to the quit hotline, 1833 183, are attended by a registered nurse trained in counselling quitters.

Smokers can also get information from the department’s website, which was launched in February. The number of visitors peaked in March at 4,326, right after the tobacco tax rose by 50 per cent.

University of Hong Kong School of Public Health director Professor Lam Tai-hing said that although the statistics were “encouraging”, the trend could slow if the government did not impose further measures.

The chief executive should increase tobacco tax by another 10 to 20 per cent in his policy address on Wednesday to set a stronger deterrent, Lam said. “Not everyone can succeed on their first attempt at quitting. If there are no further measures, these people will be drawn back to the habit,” he said.

It was important to let people know that the government was determined to combat tobacco, he said. “Even increasing the tax 1 per cent is better than nothing.”

Meanwhile, more resources should be allocated for services to help smokers quit, he said.

“There cannot be any waiting list in cessation clinics. People will become impatient and forget about the idea altogether,” Lam said.

The city’s smoking rate of 11 per cent was already lower than most developed countries, but the government should not be complacent, the professor said.

“Of these 700,000 smokers, half will eventually die due to smoking. The remaining half will also suffer from different chronic illnesses, burdening the health care system.”

He said a tax increase was the most effective way to encourage quitting, as overseas studies showed each increase could bring the smoking rate down by 4 per cent.

The government should also step up promotion with more advertisements, so that quitters would know where to go, he said.

Smoke Terminators’ Society chairwoman Dr Betty Kwan Ka-mei, who is also a private family doctor, said more of her young patients were trying to quit smoking after the tax increase and the extension of the smoking ban.

“Some cannot afford the price tag and others find it too inconvenient to smoke,” she said.

Meanwhile, Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok flew to Beijing yesterday for an antitobacco conference. He will return tomorrow