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Punitive Tactics Just Put Smokers On The Defensive

Mar 02, 2009 – SCMP

The expected benefits of the 50 per cent rise in tobacco duty seem, at first sight, quite laudable – a reduction in cigarette smoking by young smokers unable to afford this debilitating habit.

Given such a draconian tactic and one that will affect a significant percentage of the community, is it not time that we reviewed the success of the anti-smoking tactics? Just what has been the success of all the initiatives that the anti-smoking lobby has had implemented over the last two decades in Hong Kong?

This lobby has been given everything it asked for. We have had advertising and promotion bans, smoking restrictions, community anti-smoking messages, on-premises smoking restrictions and cigarette pack warnings. But what have been the social benefits of all these policies? Unfortunately, there have been no benefits. The incidence of cigarette smoking in Hong Kong and many countries with similar restrictions continues to rise.

The only rationale is that these strategies have never worked, nor were they ever going to, because they do not properly address smokers’ motivations and the habit issue. Punitive approaches such as restrictions, bans and taxes clearly do not work. They just put smokers on the defensive. It can even make smoking attractive to some young people because it appears to be rebellious, and so they take up the habit.

Introducing penalties in the form of taxation to force down habit-formed consumption never works, as anyone who has been in the alcohol and cigarette industry knows.

It always leads to smuggling and tax avoidance. Criminal elements become involved, hell-bent on the monetary advantage untaxed cigarettes will offer.

This is a lesson that was learned in the 1930s during Prohibition in the US. Have we not progressed since then? Those who would quote examples of declines in cigarette consumption following tax hikes, make the mistake of relying on and quoting official figures for cigarette imports and production. These are obviously grossly inaccurate because there is no way to collect accurate figures regarding the volume of smuggling. Smuggling activities will increase dramatically as a result.

We need new and better policies to address this health issue in Hong Kong.

We must have more enlightened public-health thinkers who can see beyond punitive measures.

Is it not time to ask the anti-smoking lobby to set some performance goals and be accountable when policies fail, as will be the case with this most recent government tax initiative?

Chris Robinson, Pok Fu Lam

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