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`Poor hit hardest’ as tobacco tax passed

Hong Kong Standard – 16 June 2011

Legislators yesterday endorsed a controversial government proposal to increase the tax on tobacco by 41.56 percent.

After a debate lasting seven hours, most pan- democrats sided with the government to pass the bill by 33 votes to eight with 12 abstentions.

The pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong decided to sit on the fence. There were 54 legislators in the chamber.

The vote means a packet of cigarettes will now cost HK$50, 70 percent of which is tax.

While the government insists the tax is a public health issue, the lawmakers who voted against it – including the three People Power and League of Social Democrats radicals – said it deprives the poor from enjoying the only luxury they can afford.

“It is discriminatory against the poor,” People Power lawmaker Albert Chan Wai-yip said.

His ally, Raymond Wong Yuk-man, agreed. “It’s a regressive tax and only increases the wealth gap. If you insist on harassing the poor people, why don’t you just shoot all the smokers?” Wong asked.

Tourism lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun said smoking is part of our freedom and the government should not intervene.

Industrial lawmaker Lam Tai-fai, who has a secondary school in his name, said he is against smoking but it was wrong to use taxation to control it.

“When you catch a student smoking, you should provide counseling, instead of giving a fine equivalent to three times the school fee.”

Vincent Fang Kang of the Liberal Party, which voted against it, said the move will only encourage smokers to buy illegal cigarettes.

DAB lawmaker Wong Ting-kwong, a smoker for 40 years, said the tax will jeopardize the livelihoods of newspaper vendors and the 30,000 people who rely on the business.

An amendment moved by Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee of the New People’s Party, and former secretary for security, to impose the tax gradually over five years, was vetoed.

Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok said the tobacco tax has already had a positive effect in discouraging smoking, with the number of young smokers down 10 percent since the last tobacco tax adjustment in 2009.

He said the government is using a multi- pronged, progressive approach to minimize the harmful effects of tobacco on young people.

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