Tobacco tax increase is best way to curb smoking

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2010, 12:00am

It took years to extend anti-smoking laws to restaurants and bars, a ban which came into effect last July. It has taken only a few months for activists to take their campaign to curb smoking outdoors. The Council on Smoking and Health is considering recommending that the government should introduce measures to corral smokers into designated outdoor smoking areas. Because more smokers have been driven onto the streets, it argues that second-hand smoke is now an outdoor health hazard, especially in crowded pedestrian areas, and that this justifies further action. A street ban would be difficult to police, but council chairwoman Lisa Lau Man-man cites the example of Tokyo, another densely populated area, where smoking in the streets has been banned in some areas.

Designated non-smoking outdoor areas are already to be found, for example along the promenade outside the Central ferry piers. Smokers generally respect them and Lau believes they would also discipline themselves if the balance were reversed and smoking areas were designated instead.

So long as tobacco use remains lawful, however addictive and unhealthy it may be, these ideas raise the question of balance between personal freedoms and community interest. Bans respect non-smokers' right to breathe clean air. But there is room for more effective enforcement of the recently introduced indoor bans and the HK$1,500 on-the-spot fines for breaches. That would reinforce the educational message to the slowly shrinking minority who smoke that theirs is an anti-social and risky habit.

Lau rightly concedes that the most effective way of curbing smoking remains rises in tobacco tax. Having raised it by 50 per cent last year - the first increase for eight years - the government should not shrink from imposing a smaller incremental rise in this year's budget. Unfortunately this would hit the poor hardest. But given that smoking is addictive, and taxpayers at large fund the earlier, more frequent and extra health care that smokers are prone to need, this is one tax increase for which there is an argument in social equity.