The higher the government raises the tobacco tax, the fewer the number of people who will pay it, either because they will no longer be able to afford to buy legal cigarettes, or take up smoking in the first place. In that respect it is a good tax. Rather than being aimed at raising revenue, it discourages a self-harming habit, is a disincentive to try it and promotes public health.
Health professionals and anti-tobacco activists were disappointed that the government did not raise the tobacco tax in last year's budget, after two hefty increases in the past five years. Officials are to be commended, therefore, for considering raising the tax further in the financial secretary's budget speech later this month, and also coupling the move with tougher tobacco controls and more money for educating kindergarten and primary pupils on the dangers of smoking.
The high-tax approach is opposed by the tobacco industry-funded Hong Kong United Against Illicit Tobacco, which claims the tax is to blame for the city's growing black-market cigarette trade. There has to be some truth in this, although, as the organisation concedes, stronger law enforcement is called for.
But since the ultimate target of anti-smoking measures has to be young people, and a higher tax makes the habit unaffordable before they earn enough money, it has been found to be the most effective strategy. Lisa Lau Man-chan, chairwoman of the Council on Smoking and Health, says the smoking rate among young people has dropped since 2008, while the number of people who light up has dropped to an all-time low.
Worryingly, however, more young children may be taking up the habit, according to a recent survey quoted by the Tobacco Control Office. High tobacco duty, a ban on smoking indoors and tight advertising restrictions have been instrumental in helping Hong Kong achieve the lowest ratio of smokers in the Asia-Pacific region. But there is no room for complacency about the emerging trend of under-age smoking.