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Smokers decry ban on duty-free tobacco

duty-freeFirst published: February 25, 2010

Source: South China Morning Post

More cash to enforce ban, but no tax rise for now


There was good news and bad for smokers in the budget, with the financial secretary scrapping the duty-free tobacco allowance for cross-border travellers but holding off from increasing tobacco duties.

Travellers will be limited to bringing into Hong Kong free of duty only one open pack containing no more than 19 cigarettes. At present they can bring in three packs (60 cigarettes).

Anti-smoking groups welcomed the scrapping of the allowance, but smokers said it would not motivate them to quit.

The government hopes the measure will be tabled for Legislative Council debate by April, and implemented by the third quarter.

A government official familiar with tobacco control said duty-free cigarettes were banned, but small amounts were allowed because it was impossible to completely stop cigarettes coming across the border.

Sales of cigarettes in duty-free shops at the border, ports and airport have risen. Last year 400 million cigarettes were sold in duty-free shops in the city, up from 360 million in 2008 and 370 million in 2007.

Singapore was the first country in the world to ban duty-free cigarettes. Sri Lanka, Barbados, Nepal and New Zealand have followed suit.

Meanwhile, another HK$23 million will be allocated to the Tobacco Control Office to allow it to deploy more staff for patrols to enforce smoking bans, prosecute offenders and provide services to help smokers quit the habit.

One smoker, Lee Mer, said the new policy was a further erosion of smokers’ rights. “Three packs are not many,” she said. “A lot of us can consume three packs a day.”

Lee, the convenor of the recently formed I Smoke Alliance, said the measure was not practical. “It will not affect our desire to quit at all,” she said.

Lisa Lau Man-man, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, welcomed the ban on duty-free cigarettes, but was disappointed duty on tobacco products was not raised. “A tax increase is still the most effective way to push people to quit,” she said.

The government said the new measure would create a fairer trading environment for retailers but Bacon Liu Sair-ching, chairman of the Coalition of Hong Kong Newspaper and Magazine Merchants, disagreed. “Our biggest competitors are illicit traders, not duty-free shops,” he said.

King Power Group and NWS Holdings (SEHK: 0659), two companies that operate duty-free shops, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Dr Judith Mackay, senior adviser to the World Lung Foundation and a policy adviser to the World Health Organisation, said the WHO saw banning duty-free cigarettes as an important development in tobacco control in Hong Kong.

She was also pleased that financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah admitted that tobacco prices in Hong Kong were still much cheaper than elsewhere in the developed world and would consider a phased tobacco-tax increase.

The government said it would review its anti-tobacco measures in the coming year. The effectiveness of the measures would be judged by the number of smokers who quit, among other criteria.

Written by Ng Yuk Hang

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