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SCMP: Smoking habit set to get more expensive

from Jennifer Ngo of the SCMP:

Government mulls tax hike as part of a plan to cut tobacco use – especially among kids

The government may raise tobacco taxes to prevent people – especially youngsters – from picking up the habit.

“Further raising of the tobacco tax is a very effective measure in reducing smoking,” said Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee, undersecretary for food and health.

Ahead of the financial secretary’s budget speech later this month, Chan said the government would explore the possibility of raising tobacco taxes, strengthening tobacco control and pumping more money into educating kindergarten and primary pupils.

The government had increased tobacco taxes twice in the past five years, with tangible results, she said. The current tobacco tax is HK$1,706 per 1,000 cigarettes, a rate of about 41.5 per cent.

Lisa Lau Man-man, chairwoman of the Council on Smoking and Health, said the smoking rate among young people had dropped since 2008, but rose slightly among primary-school children according to recent government data.

Lau advocates raising taxes progressively, better education and the pouring of revenue from tobacco taxes into policing initiatives and the establishment of centres to help smokers quit.

“There needs to be a multi-pronged approach to curb smoking,” she said.

However, Robin Jolly from Hong Kong United Against Illicit Tobacco said high taxes were to blame for the city’s growing black-market cigarette trade.

Jolly said raising tobacco taxes would only aggravate the issue. But he denied that the group’s stance was influenced by the fact it was funded by a tobacco firm.

“We need to deal with [the illicit cigarette issue] before thinking about increasing taxes.”

Jolly, a former police superintendent, also blamed weak law enforcement for the booming black-market.

In a survey commissioned by the group, 80 per cent of the 1,006 people questioned said black-market cigarettes were an issue, 70 per cent said illicit cigarettes were easily accessible to young people, and 87 per cent believed the government should do more to combat the problem.

But Lau disagreed, saying that to attribute the illicit cigarette boom to tobacco-tax increases was “jumping to a conclusion”.

The Customs and Excise Department seized 89,000,000 illicit cigarettes last year – a 17 per cent increase from the year before.

“We are targeting the source, so as to greatly reduce the number of illicit cigarettes on the streets,” a spokeswoman said.

6 Feb 2014

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