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February 3rd, 2010:

Raise tobacco tax to be on par with other cities

SCMP, Lisa Lau, chairwoman, Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health

3rd Feb, 2010

In his 2009 budget speech a year ago, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced a 50 per cent increase in tobacco duty “with immediate effect”.

He said: “We will also continue to step up our efforts on smoking cessation, as well as publicity and enforcement in tobacco control.” But Mr Tsang’s determination is yet to be proved until we see a continuation of a tax increase policy in this year’s budget.

The tobacco tax was increased by 5 per cent in 2001, but there was no rise for the next seven years.

If we want to continue our efforts on tobacco control for public health, besides enforcement and publicity as well as cessation services, we need to see a regular tax increase policy in place.

Some people may argue that raising tobacco tax will only raise the sale price of cigarettes, which are already very expensive.

But is this the case? Hong Kong ranked the 29th most-expensive place among other world cities, while New York ranked 31st, in a recent cost-of-living survey by an international employment agency.

However, cigarettes remain cheaper in Hong Kong than in many of these countries.

Clear the Air anti-tobacco committee chairman James Middleton compared cigarette prices in Hong Kong with those in other high-income cities.

He found that cigarettes in Hong Kong were only 60 per cent of the price in Singapore, 53 per cent of the cost in New York, and 43 per cent of the price in London.

The government should now prove its determination, for the sake of public health and to protect our children.

Therefore, I urge people to support a regular tobacco tax increase policy of 15 per cent annually so that cigarette prices in Hong Kong are on a par with similar cities within five years.

Tobacco tax increase is best way to curb smoking

A smoking shelter in United Kingdom.

A smoking shelter in United Kingdom.

It took years to extend anti-smoking laws to restaurants and bars, a ban which came into effect last July. It has taken only a few months for activists to take their campaign to curb smoking outdoors. The Council on Smoking and Health is considering recommending that the government should introduce measures to corral smokers into designated outdoor smoking areas. Because more smokers have been driven onto the streets, it argues that second-hand smoke is now an outdoor health hazard, especially in crowded pedestrian areas, and that this justifies further action. A street ban would be difficult to police, but council chairwoman Lisa Lau Man-man cites the example of Tokyo, another densely populated area, where smoking in the streets has been banned in some areas.

Designated non-smoking outdoor areas are already to be found, for example along the promenade outside the Central ferry piers. Smokers generally respect them and Lau believes they would also discipline themselves if the balance were reversed and smoking areas were designated instead.

So long as tobacco use remains lawful, however addictive and unhealthy it may be, these ideas raise the question of balance between personal freedoms and community interest. Bans respect non-smokers’ right to breathe clean air. But there is room for more effective enforcement of the recently introduced indoor bans and the HK$1,500 on-the-spot fines for breaches. That would reinforce the educational message to the slowly shrinking minority who smoke that theirs is an anti-social and risky habit.

Lau rightly concedes that the most effective way of curbing smoking remains rises in tobacco tax. Having raised it by 50 per cent last year – the first increase for eight years – the government should not shrink from imposing a smaller incremental rise in this year’s budget. Unfortunately this would hit the poor hardest. But given that smoking is addictive, and taxpayers at large fund the earlier, more frequent and extra health care that smokers are prone to need, this is one tax increase for which there is an argument in social equity.

Source: SCMP