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Lawmakers approve tobacco tax increase

South China Morning Post – 16 June 2011

Controversial 41.5 per cent rise ratified in Legco after a seven-hour debate, with health minister suggesting the city could go entirely smoke-free eventually

In a vote hailed for helping Hong Kong shake the smoking habit, a divided Legislative Council has approved the controversial 41.5 per cent tobacco tax rise.

Thirty-three lawmakers voted for the tax increase, eight opposed it and 12 abstained. Those who voted in favour included members of the Democratic Party and Civic Party. Lawmakers from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong abstained. The Liberal Party voted no.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok said it was a “big step for tobacco control”. “I don’t see why we can’t go entirely smoke-free eventually,” Chow said.

Legislators also passed a bill last night to increase the first-registration tax for private cars, with 25 lawmakers voting for it and 13 against.

Chow said a recent poll showed more than 60 per cent of Hongkongers supported the tobacco tax rise. But in a seven-hour debate before the vote, lawmakers were deeply divided on the issue.

Although he voted for the tax, medical sector lawmaker Dr Leung Ka-lau doubted whether increasing it would be useful, saying only a tiny fraction of tobacco taxes collected each year were spent on smoking cessation. “Hong Kong’s smoking rate is already very low,” he said. “I suspect that with such a low rate, taxation is no longer effective in making people quit.”

Neighbourhood Workers Service Centre lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung said education would be more effective than raising cigarette prices in encouraging smokers to give up, noting that elderly people often found it harder to quit.

Wong Ting-kwong, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said raising the tax would lead to more cigarette smuggling and hurt newspaper vendors’ business.

But pan-democrat lawmaker Andrew Cheng Kar-foo said the higher tax was a good way to protect smokers’ health. “The government should set a goal for when Hong Kong will be entirely smoke-free,” Cheng said, adding he was confident it could be done in 10 to 20 years. He said he doubted whether it would send newspaper vendors out of business.

Democratic Party lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong said if elderly people found it harder to quit smoking, young people should all the more be prevented from starting.

The Civic Party’s Ronny Tong Ka-wah said young people were rarely determined enough to quit, and the only way to push them to stop was to make cigarettes more expensive.

New People’s Party lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee proposed an amendment that was voted down – staggering the tax rise over five years in smaller increments. By 2015 the tax would form 75 per cent of the price of a pack of cigarettes under that plan.

The tobacco tax was raised 41.5 per cent in the budget in late February. Legco’s vote yesterday ratified that increase.

Activists show their support for the tobacco tax rise in a rally organised by the Council on Smoking and Health before lawmakers ratified the increase yesterday.

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