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Prisons end link between inmates’ pay, tobacco prices

smoking in prisonUpdated: February 24, 2010

Source: South China Morning Post

Prisoners’ earnings will no longer rise or fall in line with cigarette prices. The government, which announced the move yesterday, hopes it will curb inmates’ smoking and improve their health.

Four-fifths of adult inmates smoke, and they spend 60 per cent of their prison earnings on cigarettes. Prisoners under 21 are banned from smoking.

Prisoners’ cigarette purchases have already fallen by a sixth in two years. Last year, prison canteens sold 526,645 packets, down from 631,870 in 2008 and 641,625 in 2007.

Keith Kwan, a former inmate who is now a social organiser at the Neighbourhood and Workers’ Service Centre, said cigarettes were part of inmates’ welfare and they should not be deprived of them.

The policy would not combat smoking, and would lead to inflation since cigarettes were the “prison currency”, he said. “Inmates buy illicit products and gamble in cigarettes. If they cannot pay for the things they bought, they might get beaten up.”

While he supports the government’s effort to discourage smoking, he says more health talks and classes on quitting should be offered rather than the mere “passive display” of posters urging them to stop smoking.

A prison officer said inmates were psychologically prepared for the new policy since their earnings had not increased in proportion to the cigarette price rise triggered by last year’s 50 per cent increase in tobacco duty. “This will be fair to taxpayers. Salaries of ordinary citizens would not rise because of a tobacco tax increase. So why should inmates have special rights?” he said.

Prison officers were prepared to handle any resulting unrest, he said.

Professor Lam Tai-hing, director of the University of Hong Kong’s school of public health, welcomed the government’s measure and said it would encourage smokers to quit.

“If prisoners’ earnings are linked with cigarette prices, it implies that the government support prisoners smoking,” he said.

Smoking at the city’s 26 prisons is confined to designated booths. The Correctional Services Department does not plan to ban smoking in prisons, although the crime rate in a prison in the Isle of Man had dropped after it banned smoking.

Lam said a ban was possible in Hong Kong but must be achieved step by step. “It would be hard, since over 80 per cent of inmates are smokers, but if we do not take the first step nothing can be done,” he said.

Written by Ng Yuk-hang

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