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Data Verifies Effectiveness Of Tobacco Tax

Updated on Mar 13, 2009 – SCMP

I refer to Chan Yu-chung’s letter (“Steep tobacco tax rises do not lead to lower rates of smoking”, March 11). His claim summarised in your headline is factually incorrect.

Cigarette price is well-established as a key factor influencing tobacco consumption and smoking prevalence. The World Bank estimated that a 10 per cent price rise reduces demand for cigarettes by about 4 per cent in high-income economies and 8 per cent in others.

In Hong Kong we increased tobacco duty by 300 per cent in 1981, then 100 per cent in 1991. On both occasions smoking prevalence dropped appreciably, from 23.3 per cent in 1982 to 18.7 per cent in 1984, and from 15.7 per cent in 1990 to 14.9 per cent in 1993. The daily average number of smokers calling the Department of Health’s smoking cessation hotline has increased by more than 15 times since the budget announcement on February 25. Our citizens have become more health-conscious and the government’s tobacco control efforts, including taxation, have played a part.

Notwithstanding the overall drop in smoking, its prevalence among women and the young has not shown the same decline. The proportion of 15- to 19-year-olds who smoke has hovered between 2.3 per cent and 4.6 per cent since 1982. The prevalence of smoking among females, having dropped to a low of 2.6 per cent in 1990, climbed back to 4 per cent in 2005. That figure had dropped to 3.6 per cent by 2008, but the drop is proportionally less than the drop in the proportion of smokers in the population from 14 per cent in 2005 to 11.8 per cent last year.

Some 64.8 per cent of smokers started at age 10 to 19, and the number who started smoking below the age of 10 has risen by 21.2 per cent, from 8,500 in 2005 to 10,300 in 2008. Smokers are also smoking more cigarettes every day. The average number puffed by smokers per day increased to 14 (overall), 11 (among female smokers) and 11 (among teenage smokers) in 2008, from 13, 10 and 9 respectively in 2005. This is a cause for concern from a public health point of view.

Increasing tobacco duty is a public health response to these concerns and is part of the government’s multi-pronged approach to tobacco control which also includes publicity, education, legislation, enforcement and cessation. We have made steady progress over the years.

Hong Kong has no reason not to be proud of its success in tobacco control, which means better health for our people and a reduced disease burden for future generations. But there is no reason for complacency.

Thomas Chan, deputy secretary for food and health

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