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Cigarette Companies Have Infiltrated Administration

Experts say cigarette companies have infiltrated administration

Mary Ann Benitez – SCMP – Updated on Apr 18, 2008

Senior government officials are being chummy with tobacco industry insiders who have infiltrated the administration, even using the industry’s stock phrases to rationalise why Hong Kong has not increased tobacco duties, international experts said yesterday.

David Simpson, former director of Action on Smoking and Health UK who recommended the setting up of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, said his main concern for Hong Kong was “that tobacco industry people have taken positions in influential places where in my view they should not be permitted to be”.

He pointed to government officials using the phrase “people who choose to smoke”.

“For example, we heard that at quite senior level in a private conversation, a senior government official was saying it is difficult to ask taxpayers to foot the bill when people choose to smoke,” Dr Simpson, director of the International Agency on Tobacco and Health, said.

“Why should taxpayers have to pay for the cost of enticing them to quit?” he said, adding: “There is only one source of the phrase `choose to smoke’.”

The hard-hitting statements were made at a press briefing yesterday on the eve of today’s seminar on priority issues on tobacco control. Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok will give the keynote address.

Dr Simpson said the phrase being used by senior officials raises “a red flag of warning to me that government has somehow been infiltrated by the tobacco industry”.

The phrase was “straight tobacco propaganda”.

“And immediately when I heard this phrase, it’s like when you meet a gangster, you can tell he is a gangster because of the bulge of the gun in his pocket. This is the verbal equivalent. Those people have been spending too much time with tobacco industry people,” he said.

Hana Ross, strategic director of the American Cancer Society’s international tobacco surveillance programme, called on Hong Kong to raise tobacco duties because it had been shown in many countries that taxes were the most effective tobacco control measure.

The last time tobacco duties rose in Hong Kong was in 2001.

“Taxes are the most effective tobacco control measure that can be used,” Dr Ross said.

Affordability of tobacco products improved in Hong Kong in 2005, almost to the same level as in 1997, she said, adding that she expected the affordability of the products would now be even higher than in 1997.

Comparing cigarette prices in the region last year, Hong Kong is behind Singapore, Canada and Australia.

But if one looked at the prices of tobacco adjusted for local purchasing power, Hong Kong was almost at the same level as Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. “Cigarettes here are really becoming very affordable,” Dr Ross said.

Since 2000, the prevalence of smoking had levelled off.

“If taxes are not increased, we will not see as much decrease in smoking prevalence in Hong Kong,” Dr Ross said.

By increasing taxes on tobacco products by 20 per cent, the number of smokers could be cut by 21,000, and 5,250 smoking-related deaths could be prevented, she said.

Anthony Hedley, chair professor of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong’s school of public health, said: “We need to raise the red flag. Hong Kong is in serious danger of stalling in the process [of tobacco control], of losing its place regionally or globally, and indeed, in relative terms, of going backwards.”

Judith Mackay, director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control in Hong Kong, said that since 2000, the tobacco industry had put on a “charm offensive” and this had led to what she called “a recession” in tobacco control.

She said this might be because Hong Kong had to battle an economic crisis, had been distracted by Sars and bird flu, or that the tobacco industry had become more influential in government.

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