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WHO chief says tobacco lobby is at work in city

South China Morning Post – 12 Oct. 2011

Margaret Chan warns that progress to cut smoking rates is under threat from industry

Tobacco industry lobbyists are working “on the ground” in Hong Kong’s political arena to combat efforts that have cut the smoking rate to a 30-year low, the head of the World Health Organisation says.

Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun said the city had done “extremely well” in its battle against tobacco – reducing the number of people who smoke daily to just 11.1 per cent of those aged over 15 – but it faced an uphill battle against challenges from the tobacco industry.

Chan (pictured), a former Hong Kong director of health, said she had been told that tobacco lobbyists would do “all sorts of things” to fight the government’s initiatives.

“People supported by the tobacco industry are working on the ground in Hong Kong to give trouble to people who are anti-tobacco,” she said.

“They will lobby politicians not to approve laws and they will do all sorts of things … character assassination,” she said.

Chan’s warning came four months after a divided Legislative Council ratified a 41.5 per cent rise in tobacco tax, adding HK$10 to the cost of a packet of cigarettes. The endorsement came only after a fierce political debate, in which traditional government allies either abstained or voted against the increase.

Opposition to the policy also dealt a blow to Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who proposed it in the budget in February.

Speaking on the sidelines of the 62nd session of the WHO’s regional committee of the Western Pacific region, Chan (pictured) said that although there would be resistance to tobacco control measures, governments including Hong Kong’s should “put out all the facts” and not succumb to political pressure. “We are not in a popularity contest,” she said.

In 1997, Chan, then director of health, saw her popularity plunge after she ordered that all 1.5 million chickens in Hong Kong be killed during a bird flu outbreak, although she tried to allay public concern by saying she ate chicken every day.

On the mainland, home to a third of the world’s smokers, Chan said progress was being made on tobacco control but “it’s not easy”.

“Every time I go to China, this is an issue I always talk about with them. I talked to Premier Wen [Jiabao] before they organised the Olympic Games and I also talked to the leaders of Shanghai when they organised the [World] Expo,” she said.

A national smoking ban was introduced in public places this year, six years after Beijing ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Chan, whose first term as WHO director general expires next June, is seeking a second term.

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