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Half of Hong Kong’s elderly smokers die from related diseases, says study

16 December, 2014

Elizabeth Cheung

Study of over-65s in city reveals that ‘alarming’ number succumb to cancer and other illnesses, prompting call for another rise in tobacco tax

Half of Hong Kong’s elderly smokers aged over 65 die from related illnesses such as lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases, a study has found.

The world’s largest research project on smoking among the elderly was conducted by the University of Hong Kong and the Department of Health.

Researchers spent 11 years between 2001 and 2012 studying 65,510 elderly people aged over 65 from 18 health centres under the health department.

They found that among all elderly smokers, one in every two, were killed by smoking-related diseases. Given that there were a total of 6,235 male and female smokers in the study, about 3,117 people died because of smoking.

Lung cancer risk for the elderly was increased by 421 per cent, and 63 per cent in cardiovascular diseases, when compared with non-smokers, the study said.

The World Health Organisation has stated that tobacco kills around six million people around the world every year.

“The result is alarming and deserves our attention … if the elderly quit smoking, we found that their survival rate can be largely improved,” said Professor Lam Tai-hing, chair professor of HKU’s school of public health.

The team said that the risk of lung cancer can be reduced by 30 to 50 per cent when elderly people quit smoking for 10 years.

Stopping smoking also brought instant benefits – blood pressure would be lowered in 20 minutes, blood oxygen would get back to normal in eight hours, and respiration and physical function would improve in three days, the study said.

Quitting before 50 could reduce the risk of dying in the next 15 years by half. “It is better to quit before age 40 or even before 30,” said Lam.

Currently there are some 270,000 smokers aged 50 or over in Hong Kong, with those in their 50s consuming 13.8 cigarettes per day – the highest among all age groups. Researchers suggested an increase in tobacco tax to encourage elderly people to quit the habit.

A WHO report in 2009 stated that tobacco tax increases were the “single most effective way to decrease tobacco use”. It suggested tax should make up 70 per cent of the tobacco price. The local tax is now around 69 per cent.

“The tobacco tax must be raised, even just slightly,” said Lam. “The greater the increase, the better the effect [in smoking cessation].”

While the local smoking prevalence rate in 2012 was 10.7 per cent, the Hong Kong government has set a target to reduce that to 5 per cent by 2022.

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