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High tobacco tax increase has led to large drop in sales of cigarettes

South China Morning Post – 5 July 2011

I refer to the letter from Markus Shaw (“A lot of puff about new cigarette tax”, June 23). Yet again Mr Shaw seeks to repeat the PR spin of big tobacco by attempting to equate tobacco smoking with junk food and alcohol use.

Passive smoking kills innocent bystanders – 1,400 people out of 7,000 total smoking deaths a year here – whereas junk food and alcohol affect the product users not bystanders. Mr Shaw says the health secretary should instead comment on air pollution.

The Hedley online index shows the deaths attributable to pollution in 2010 were 792, being 11 per cent of the deaths attributable to smoking, while smoking itself is a serious form of air pollution.

Mr Shaw states the increased tax will deny “pleasure” to the poor and present an opportunity for crime.

The people most in need of quitting are the poor who can then spend more on their families and add 10 years to their lifespan with them. In the past two years, 65 per cent of contraband cigarettes seized by the Customs and Excise Department were genuine tobacco products and, of those, 7 per cent were marked “HK Duty Not Paid”, obviously leaked from our duty free outlets. It is a fact proved worldwide that the tobacco companies deliberately fail to control their supply chains, allowing unscrupulous elements to supply the illicit market.

The government has injected an additional HK$42 million in 2011 towards increased free cessation therapy and products. Mr Shaw further states the tax increase oppresses a minority. In 2010, when there was no budget excise tax increase, the legal sales of cigarettes in Hong Kong were: March, 53.9 million; April, 114 million; May, 225.7 million. After the tax increase announced in February’s budget, the numbers were: March, 6.1 million; April, 45.2 million; May, 75.5 million. Even the blinkered can see the tax increase is a positive preventive health measure. We have probably the most efficient Customs and Excise Department in the world and statistics show that the seizures and quantities have declined dramatically since 2007.

The only oppression of this health measure is on the dwindling profits of the tobacco companies. The University of Hong Kong’s department of community medicine study (1998) shows that the cost to Hong Kong society including loss of life per year was HK$72 billion; this will now be far higher in equivalent 2011 terms.

James Middleton, chairman, Clear the Air

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