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Health Hotline Flooded Since Tobacco Duty Raised

Hotline flooded since tobacco duty raised 50pc in budget

Ng Kang-chung – SCMP – Feb 28, 2009

The decision to raise the tobacco duty in the budget to discourage people from smoking seems to have had an immediate effect – a hotline that helps people kick the habit has been flooded with inquiries.

By 4pm yesterday there had been 403 inquiries to the Department of Health’s hotline – 1833 183. It received 322 calls on Thursday, against a daily average of just 12 last year.

The hotline is manned by nurses who provide counselling. After hours, a computerised call-handling system provides information on quitting smoking.

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced the 50 per cent increase in tobacco duty in his budget speech on Wednesday. With immediate effect, the duty on cigarettes increased from around 80 cents per cigarette to about HK$1.20.

The increase pushed the retail price of a pack of 20 cigarettes to about HK$39, up from HK$29.

Mr Tsang estimated that 10 per cent to 20 per cent of smokers would opt to quit after the duty increase.

Meanwhile, the health minister disclosed yesterday that the idea of imposing an import ban on cigarettes was once considered as a move to force people to stop smoking.

Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok also warned the government could one day reconsider such a move.

Dr Chow made the comments during a radio phone-in programme in which he faced a torrent of criticism over the move to increase tobacco duty by 50 per cent.

In yesterday’s RTHK Talkabout programme, one smoker, a Mr Ching, asked why the government did not simply outlaw tobacco imports.

Dr Chow said: “It was not that we had not thought of this idea. But society is changing and the habit [of smoking] can change by not [banning imports]. In the past 10 to 20 years, we have increased tobacco duty and strengthened education in the hope of encouraging people to quit smoking.

“Many places in the world are using more or less the same means.”

Repeatedly challenged by Mr Ching over an import ban, Dr Chow said: “We have not ruled that out. One day, we might consider that or carry it out.”

But he was quick to add: “Hong Kong is a free society. We hope people can kick the habit willingly.”

According to figures from the Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Office, the proportion of smokers dropped from 14 per cent of the population in 2005 to 11.8 per cent in 2007-08.

The percentage of young smokers – aged between 15 and 19 – also fell, from 3.5 per cent of the youth population in 2005 to 2.4 per cent in 2007-08.

But Dr Chow said he was still worried. “Young smokers now consume 11 sticks every day, as compared to nine sticks in 2005.”

On media reports about a surge in smuggling of cigarettes after the duty was increased, Dr Chow said: “Customs will have sufficient measures and resources to deal with this problem

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