HK's disconnect in health and air policy
Here's a direct question for the chief executive: 'Do you agree that air pollution is a serious public health issue?' If the answer is 'yes', then why has the Food and Health Bureau been silent on the issue? If the answer is 'no', then please explain why you think that over 6 million doctor visits a year for ailments related to air pollution does not constitute a public health crisis?
Please explain why you disagree with the Hong Kong Paediatric Society, Hong Kong Geriatric Society, Hong Kong Asthma Society, Hong Kong Society of Paediatric Respirology, Hong Kong Paediatric Nurses Association and the Hong Kong Doctors Union?
These organisations recently wrote a joint, public letter to lawmakers stating: 'We feel an imminent need to step up all measures that could bring about an immediate improvement to our air quality ... our people, aged and young in particular, would have no choice but to continue to inhale polluting air and are extensively exposed to an increasingly high risk of brain, respiratory and heart diseases as a result of deteriorating air quality.
'We urge the government to do its utmost in bringing about a full and comprehensive package of measures to further reduce all these pollution hazards from industry, energy and transportation sources ... any excessive exemption or delay would just prolong the exposure [of] our people to the health risk caused by vehicular emission.'
Our medical profession thinks air pollution is a serious public health problem. Perhaps the government has better medical credentials? Perhaps the health bureau is too preoccupied with more acute health issues? During the recent World Cup soccer tournament, it issued a press release headed, 'Health tips for World Cup fans', which contained the following useful advice: 'Consume snacks only when you are hungry. Choose healthy snacks ... be aware of the calories and fat in nuts ... drink plenty of water or light tea [without added sugar] instead of beers and soft drinks if you do not want extra calories ... do not forget: ensure good indoor ventilation. Stretch and move around while watching the matches ... strike a balance between watching matches and fulfilling your social commitments.'
Missing from this list was 'Breathe less. Breathing can be hazardous for your health'. Still, we cannot expect our civil servants to think of everything, or to judge what is important when they are already so busy.
Health chief Dr York Chow Yat-ngok worries about us fulfilling our social commitments; Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen chairs too many task forces to have time for the tough policy choices necessary to clean up our air; Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is all blue-sky talk and no action.
Diesel trucks and buses generate 80 to 90 per cent of roadside pollution, but the government has no credible policies to get the worst polluters off the roads. The medical profession seeks a 'comprehensive package of measures', but 'comprehensive' is the last word one would associate with government air policy right now.
Markus Shaw is a businessman and environmentalist