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Anti-smoking fight heats up

Bringing Hong Kong’s smoking rate down to single digits from one of the world’s lowest will be a slow and difficult drive, with the government considering a two-pronged strategy.

Undersecretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said this in an interview with The Standard, as the government is set to gazette an amended law enlarging the size of scare-tactics health warnings to at least 85 percent of the cigarette packets before the current term ends on June 30.

Chan said the government will study new strategies to encourage about 600,000 hard-core smokers to quit and prevent young people from taking up the habit.

Hong Kong’s smoking rate is 10.5 percent – down from 28 percent in the 1980s – but Chan said the long-term goal is to bring down the prevalence rate to single digits, although no deadline has been set for achieving that for several reasons.

“We know that as smoking prevalence decreases to such a low extent – 10.5 is actually one of the lowest rates in the world – the rate of further lowering would be slower than before because many people who are motivated or are prepared to quit have probably already quit,” she said.

But it would be very difficult to get the hardcore smokers to quit.

“But it doesn’t mean we are not doing anything. We just need a different strategy to deal with this group of more hard-core people,” said Chan.

“We need to study the remaining population of smokers more carefully to ascertain how hardcore they are and what strategy we need to deal with the different stages of readiness to quit.”

Chan also said it was very important to prevent young people from picking up the habit.

“That’s why it is also important for us to regulate for example, e-cigarettes which are like a gateway to smoking.”

The Food and Health Bureau is studying the legislative framework to carry that out, she said, but it would not be ready anytime soon.

The Department of Health will study whether the expanded health warnings would have any effect on bringing down the smoking rate once the enhanced warnings were put in place.

“We have international evidence that it would reduce smoking prevalence,” she said.

It would be the first time for pictorial health warnings to be expanded since the warning covering 50 percent of packets was introduced in 2007.

The government will allow the tobacco industry 12 months from the enactment of the law to sell off existing stock and prepare for the expanded warnings that will also include 12 pictures, up from the current six, to be used on a rotation basis.

But she said this did not mean the government had made any concessions to the trade, saying: “Even the last time, we gave 12 months when we first introduced the pictorial warning in 2007.”

She insisted that the plan was “to gazette as soon as practicable before June 30.”

While Chan said plain packaging would not happen in Hong Kong anytime soon, she defended the government’s move to go for 85 percent instead of 100 percent health warnings.

The World Health Organization recommends 50 percent or above, she noted.

But there are legal considerations as seen in countries that have mandated plain packaging being sued by the tobacco giants.

The enhanced warnings also include the Department of Health quit line and a message from the government to quit smoking.

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