Hong Kong's fight to stub out smoking

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am


There's a world war on. The enemy: tobacco.

Some 173 countries have ratified the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the first treaty under the WHO constitution. It came into force in 2005, and its goal is to 'to protect present and future generations from the devastating ... consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke'.

Today is World No Tobacco Day, and it comes as the fight for cleaner air and cleaner lungs has gone global.

The countries that have ratified the treaty represent 87 per cent of the world's population. By signing, they have agreed to standards meant to ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, put health warnings on packages, bar sales to minors, protect citizens against second-hand smoke, and raise taxes on tobacco. They are also supposed to share health data and information.

Hong Kong is in position to be a leader in its region, a tobacco control expert says. The Western Pacific Region, which covers Hong Kong, has the most smokers of the WHO's six regions. But it is also the only region to have all countries ratifying a global health treaty on tobacco control.

'If there were no FCTC, there would be no co-ordination and liaison between countries,' World Lung Foundation senior adviser Professor Judith Mackay said. 'The tobacco industry would be more able to pick off countries one by one.'

Scientific studies show that smoking kills one in two smokers, but the habit is becoming less popular in the West. According to the Tobacco Atlas, the smoking rate in developed countries fell by about 30 per cent in the past two decades.

So tobacco companies are switching their attention to the developing world, where the smoking population is rising. Global sales of cigarettes reached 6.3 trillion sticks last year - up from 5 trillion in 1990 - and three-quarters of the buyers were from developing countries.

And it is a profitable strategy. According to The Independent on Sunday, the big four tobacco companies - Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco - made more than HK$324 billion profit last year, up from HK$312 billion in 2009.

Mackay said Hong Kong was not doing badly in the battle to reduce smoking. Its smoking rate of 12 per cent is the lowest in the region. But, it could do more, Mackey said. It should start a five- or 10-year plan to raise the tobacco tax, she said.

It should change the pictorial warnings on cigarette packaging every two years, 'as smokers tune out after a while'. Plain packaging should be introduced in the next three years, and owners of places such as bars, pubs, restaurants and malls should be held responsible if people light up in their venue. At present, it is just smokers who can be fined if caught by the Tobacco Control Office.

The city should take more action against illicit cigarettes and smuggling, and should insist that cigarettes sales become 'under-the-counter' in shops, she said.

But the city's experience could also be a model for the mainland, which she said was 'moving slowly in the right direction'. The mainland banned smoking in all indoor public spaces, although compliance has been unsatisfactory.

She urged the central government to commit to tobacco control and fully implement the framework convention as soon as possible.