Smoking rise draws call to put up duties
Mary Ann Benitez
Cigarette use up 13.8pc despite restaurant ban
Anti-tobacco groups are calling on the financial secretary to raise tobacco duties after government figures show a 13.8 per cent rise in cigarette consumption since 2006 despite a smoking ban in restaurants.
Low tobacco duties - which have not changed since April 1, 2001 - have made Hong Kong cigarettes among the cheapest available in developed economies.
Customs and Excise Department figures show that 38.2 million more cigarettes per month were consumed last year than in 2006.
The ban on smoking in indoor public places was introduced in July 2007, but some bars and karaoke clubs were given a two-year exemption. That exemption will end in July, but already there has been a movement to postpone the move.
The pressure to raise the tobacco tax is greater this year due to the financial downturn, and anti- tobacco groups say it is high time the government increased tobacco duties to cut consumption, especially among young people.
The Council on Smoking and Health (Cosh) has been using the internet to rally support for a policy that would increase duties by 5 percentage points above inflation.
Cosh said it would submit the virtual signatures from its campaign and its proposal for a so-called health tax policy to Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah before he delivers the 2009-10 budget on February 25.
Customs figures show that smokers lit up 3.79 billion cigarettes last year, compared with 3.33 billion in 2006, the year before the partial ban went into force. In 2007, 3.49 billion cigarettes were consumed.
'The remaining smokers are consuming more. The price is as cheap as in 2001 and they can still go out to pubs and karaokes and nightclubs and smoke to their hearts' demise,' said Clear the Air's smoking committee chairman James Middleton.
'The figures in Hong Kong set an example to the world of how not to enact a smoking ban.'
The duty was last raised in the 2001-02 financial year - from 76 cents to 80 cents per cigarette.
Anthony Hedley, professor of the University of Hong Kong's department of community medicine, said he was 'very pessimistic' that Mr Tsang would choose public health over business.
Philip Morris Asia cautioned against excessive increases in the tobacco duty, saying it would support 'regular and moderate tax increases' but there should be no change in times of deflation.
A spokeswoman said excessive tax would encourage smuggling, as was seen in the 1990s.
Customs figures show a decline in smuggling attempts in recent years.
The anti-tobacco lobby said census projections for restaurant receipts last year - the first full year the partial smoking ban had been in place - were HK$78.21 trillion, more than 27 per cent up on 2006 receipts. The figures were evidence, the campaigners said, that the smoking ban had not hurt the restaurant trade, as the industry had feared.
Professor Hedley said top officials 'need to take tobacco out of Hong Kong business, stop pretending this is like any other business'.
Chinese University department of community and family medicine professor Wong Tze-wai said the government should view tobacco in the same category as petrol.
'We put tax on items that create some harm for other people, such as petrol,' Professor Wong said. 'Why do we want to tax petrol? [It is] because we want to discourage its consumption and excessive pollution.'
A spokesman for Mr Tsang said: 'Public consultation [on the budget] is in progress now. We welcome all views and we have an open mind.'