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Hong Kong’s failure to raise tobacco tax will take its toll on city’s youth

South China Morning Post – 7 Feb 2012

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah has previously stated correctly in budget speeches that tobacco taxation, which makes tobacco unaffordable, is the most effective preventative health measure to stop youth smoking. The vast majority of nicotine addicts start smoking when they’re in the 10-19 age group.

There was no tobacco tax increase in the 2012 budget despite Hong Kong being legally bound by the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and requests from doctors, NGOs and government health bodies.

Thematic surveys show that in 2009, 383,000 10-19 year olds started smoking; in 2010 the number grew to 383,900. The situation cried out for a realistic preventative tax increase but was ignored by this business-friendly administration.

A pack of the most popular cigarettes costs HK$50 here, a city with one of the highest costs of living in the world. Compare the cost of that same pack in cities where authorities have genuine political will against smoking: Sydney HK$125, New York HK$117, Singapore HK$73 and Paris HK$62.

The WHO’s convention binds 174 parties, including China and the SAR, to specific tobacco control actions but these are repeatedly ignored by our officials.

Our government earned HK$4.384 billion from the tobacco excise tax and fixed-penalty notices last year but how much of this was invested in tobacco control in 2011? A meagre HK$174.8 million (HK$113.3 million for the Tobacco Control Office and the Council on Smoking and Health, HK$42 million for smoking cessation, and HK$19.5 million for the Health Authority’s efforts).

The Health Department has five smoking cessation clinics: four for government staff and only one for the public.

The Tobacco Control Office is woefully understaffed by a factor of at least six; the office has 107 staff covering two shifts for all of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories and the Islands, and can only act on complaints.

This tobacco-friendly government issued flawed legislation with no onus on licensees to prevent smoking in liquor-licensed premises then failed to allocate adequate staff for enforcement. Hong Kong’s male smoking rate is 25 per cent higher than Australia’s. It seems the only political will of the Tsang administration is to keep our youth smoking, keeping the merchants of death in business and showing a flagrant lack of duty of care to Hong Kong’s children.

James Middleton, Clear the Air

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