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January 27th, 2008:

Make Tobacco Giants Pay

Make Tobacco Giants Pay for causing addicts so much misery – SCMP

J. Garner’s concern (“Radical changes are needed in regulation of cigarettes”, January 20) about the government’s failure to control the epidemic of disease caused by tobacco, does not justify passing the cost on to those who are sick.

They are paying a high price already for nicotine addiction, mostly acquired before their 18th birthday.

The government and the community have other instruments which should be used to prevent tobacco-induced disease and pay for the damage which is caused by the tobacco industry.

First, we desperately need a very large increase in tobacco duty. Cigarettes in Hong Kong are now among the cheapest in the world, relative to our gross domestic product and yet price controls through fiscal measures are proven to be the best preventive medicine by reducing consumption.

Second, we need to develop litigation against tobacco companies either on an individual or class action basis as is happening in other jurisdictions. However, it is unlikely that our major law firms will align themselves against the tobacco industry from which many benefit by lucrative contracts.

Third, the relative scarcity of publicly-funded professional smoking cessation services means they do not begin to match the level of need in the community.

At present tobacco duty pays for less than half of the costs of health care and lost productivity caused by tobacco. If the Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah fails to deal effectively with this problem in the budget next month, then we must accept that recruitment of young people to tobacco dependency will continue to escalate and in turn increase the need for health care. At that point we will all have to pay.

Anthony Hedley, department of community medicine, school of public health, The University of Hong Kong