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About The New Anti-Smoking Bill In Hong Kong

Thursday, October 19, 2006 – Tobacco Control Radio

Experts slam ‘half-baked’ anti-smoking bill: Allowing brand promotion on non-tobacco items will mean heavy public health cost, says professor Anthony Hedley.

The city will pay heavily for a bill that still allows tobacco companies leeway to promote their products, anti-smoking experts have said.

Anthony Hedley, chair professor of the University of Hong Kong’s department of community medicine and director of its tobacco control research and policy unit, said he was unhappy that after much delay in scrutinising the anti-smoking bill, it was still not good enough.

“For this city to come out with such a half-baked piece of legislation is just unbelievable. I’m very disappointed. It’s not an effective public health document,” he said.

“What we are seeing is continued and actually successful methods to maintain normality of tobacco in this town. and we will pay for that with public health.”

The Smoking (Public Health) (Amendment) Bill 2005 was still having its second and third readings in Legco last night.

The bill imposes a smoking ban in bars and restaurants on a staggered basis from January 1 next year to July 1, 2009.

All cigarette packets will have to carry a graphic health warning and terms such as “low tar” will be banned from 2008. Tobacco advertising will be banned at all retail outlets from November 1 next year and at all licensed hawker stalls from November 1, 2009.

Last year, the University of Hong Kong estimated the total cost of active and passive smoking was HK$5.3 billion, not including 6,920 deaths last year related to smoking. Professor Hedley warned the delayed enforcement of the law would be costly.

“We can’t say where that figure is now,” he said. “We definitely can say there will be a cost in terms of tobacco promotion and recruitment of young people to nicotine addiction. Because of the brand extension issue, there will be a cost to the health of the hospitality industry’s workers, and there will be a cost which will be attributable to the `light’ and `mild’ terms. If that is not effectively dealt with, then we will still have a large number of people who believe these cigarettes are safer, that they are not as lethal as they really are.”

Professor Hedley singled out the way the government inserted a clause allowing brand extensions – the use of tobacco brand names and logos on non-tobacco products such as clothes and shoes.

“There are very serious questions to be answered about how this [clause] got into the consultation document, why it was not changed, and why the bureau refused to consider it now,” he said.

Judith Mackay, senior World Health Organisation adviser on tobacco, wanted to know why the government took five years to legislate.

The green paper was first tabled in 2001, when the smoking bill had not been amended since 1997.

“Why this huge delay? Was it because of some Legislative Council members? Was it something like Sars? Or was it [government] ineptitude,” Dr Mackay asked.

The next step would be to implement the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. “Hong Kong has to be more vigorous against smuggling,” she said.

Professor Hedley said one measure was to increase tobacco duty, which had not risen for six years. “That is a device which has made our tobacco some of the cheapest in the world now relative to GDP,” he said.

An international brand cost HK$22 per pack, compared with HK$35 to HK$36 before, he said.

“It does not make any sense. This is supposed to be a business-orientated government. It should be making money out of the tobacco industry, not the tobacco industry making money out of the government and the people.”

The much-delayed and amended bill that will ban smoking from January 1 at most indoor workplaces and public places was finally passed into law yesterday.

But controversy continued over the last-minute revelation by Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food York Chow Yat-ngok that the government will study the feasibility of smoking rooms in restaurants and entertainment venues.

The Smoking (Public Health) (Amendment) Bill 2005 was passed 2-1/2 hours after the debate resumed yesterday. The meeting was adjourned after nine hours on Wednesday night as legislators went through 18 amendment clauses.

Dr Chow hailed its passage as “historic”.

“In the end the government managed to find a balance to help Hong Kong move towards a no-smoking society. Today was a historic moment for both the community and for myself,” he said. “It makes Hong Kong one of the most widely controlled smoking areas in the world.”

But before the bill went through its third reading, bills committee chairman Andrew Cheng Kar-foo, of the Democratic Party, pressed Dr Chow as to why there was an apparent U-turn on the government’s position on smoking rooms.

Mr Cheng said verbatim records of the committee’s meetings on three occasions showed Dr Chow’s bureau and the Department of Health insisting that smoking rooms were “unacceptable in the absence of WHO safety standards”.

Dr Chow argued: “The Democratic Party looks at it conspiratorially, whether there is a plot behind it. I would not be influenced by anybody.”

Much of yesterday’s debate focused on Mr Cheng’s amendment to prohibit the sale of tobacco products to children in school uniform.

But catering sector legislator Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, who wore his school colours, said: “We are not legislating to catch vendors selling cigarettes to young people.”

Judith Mackay, director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control, who watched the debate from the public gallery, said she was disappointed the amendment banning sales to children in school uniform was not passed.

“That seems extraordinary. The vendors are not allowed to ask for ID cards. It would have been much easier for the vendors if there was a ban on school uniforms,” she said.

The Committee on Youth Smoking Prevention, which represents 310 primary and secondary schools and 10 parent groups, said it was outraged. “We would like to register our extreme anger,” it said in a statement. “The government says it wants to discourage children from smoking yet it would not support the school uniform amendment.”

The law empowers the secretary for health to appoint inspectors to enforce the ordinance and removes the statutory requirement for managers to display no-smoking signs. The grace period before licensed hawkers must not display tobacco ads will be extended from one year to November 1, 2009.

Nightclubs, commercial bathhouses, massage establishments, mahjong parlours, designated mahjong rooms in clubs and certain bars must implement the smoking ban by July 1, 2009.

Public parks will have designated smoking zones. The law prohibits the display of descriptive words on tobacco packets and retail containers that may have a misleading or deceptive effect.

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