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Our lawmakers must back tobacco tax increase in today’s Legislative Council vote

South China Morning Post — 15 June 2011

The government’s controversial plan to dramatically increase tobacco duty will be put to a final vote in the Legislative Council today. The decision is an important one. It goes beyond the question of how much more smokers must pay for their cigarettes. It is a public health issue that affects millions of smokers and non-smokers alike in Hong Kong. There is no reason why lawmakers should vote against it.
In line with global tobacco control efforts, the government announced in the budget an immediate 41.46 per cent increase to further discourage tobacco consumption. A pack of cigarettes now costs, on average, about HK$50, of which 70 per cent is tax – still short of the 75 per cent recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The new levy has made cigarettes significantly more expensive and difficult for less well-off smokers to afford. But that is the reason for introducing the increase. It is intended to deter people from smoking. Figures suggest the tax increase is already having an impact, with 634 calls received within two months by various hotlines helping people to quit smoking, twice as many as in the same period last year.

The tobacco industry is, no doubt, right when it says some smokers have turned to cheap, smuggled cigarettes. But the solution should be tougher enforcement action rather than reining in a public health policy with wide community support. Regrettably, some lawmakers think they can win votes by blocking or watering down the increase. They should look beyond electoral gains and cast a vote for the public interest.
Smoking is said to be responsible for 6,000 deaths a year in Hong Kong and 5.4 million deaths worldwide. A veto of the levy, which has been in force since February, would not only result in the absurd situation of the government having to refund an estimated HK$300 million to the industry, it would mean Hong Kong lags behind efforts being made around the world to curb smoking.

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