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Gradual fall in number of teens smoking – Researchers credit smoking ban, rise in tax for cut in tobacco use

Ng Yuk-hang, SCMP

The number of teenage smokers has fallen in the past five years as the extension of the smoking ban and the rise in tobacco tax have made the habit more inconvenient and costly, university researchers said yesterday.

But 33,000 pupils – 6.9 per cent of those in Form One to Five – still smoke, the University of Hong Kong researchers estimated. The government should continue to push its anti-tobacco efforts because “they will never be enough”, they said.

In the most recent survey, the university interviewed 18,278 students last year randomly sampled from different secondary schools.

Of these, 6.9 per cent said they had smoked a cigarette in the previous 30 days, while 17.7 per cent said they had tried smoking at some time.

The proportion of current smokers was down from 9.6 per cent in 2003 and 9.5 per cent in 2006, school of public health assistant professor Dr Daniel Ho Sai-yin said. He believed the increase in tobacco tax and extension of the smoking ban had contributed. “Teenagers are especially sensitive to a tax increase. They might rather save the money for a trip with their family,” he said.

Smoking had become an “old-fashioned habit” among teenagers, and smokers were getting more and more unpopular, he said.

Among the young smokers, about half did not have an intention to quit, a slight improvement from 59 per cent in 2003. “If they do not quit now, half of them will die prematurely in middle age because of smoking,” Ho said. The government should start looking into the feasibility of banning smoking further – such as in vehicles whenever children were present.

“This is the practice in some American states,” he said. “Smoking in front of children is a form of physical abuse.”

School director Professor Lam Tai-hing said smoking controls could never be enough, citing as an example the loophole in the restaurant smoking ban that means owners are not punished for not stopping their customers from smoking.“By the time law enforcement officials arrive, the smokers are already gone,” he said.

The government should increase the tobacco tax every year to boost its deterrent effect, he said. Pictures on cigarette packets could show more clearly “the disgusting health consequence of smoking”.

The university has organised a video competition for secondary school pupils in which they can upload a one-minute anti-smoking video on YouTube, which would then be voted on.

Lam said the competition would not focus on preventing youth smoking, but rather the “denormalisation” of the habit.

“If we tell them teenagers should not smoke, we are implying that adults can,” he said. “Instead we should spread the message that smoking is no longer a trend. It does not imply independence.”

Smoking killed 6,000 people a year in the city and second-hand smoke another 1,000, he said.

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