It's time to scrap the two-can limit on baby milk formula

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 September, 2015, 2:08am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 September, 2015, 2:08am

The two-can limit on taking baby milk formula out of Hong Kong was supposed to be a temporary measure. Two-and-a-half years later, the rule is still in place, with the government contending it is still necessary to protect local supplies. But manufacturers, retailers and suppliers disagree. Nor has the measure deterred cross-border traders and travellers from breaking the law. Its continued imposition tarnishes our city's claim to champion a free economy.

A drop in mainland visitor numbers has brought fresh attention to the issue. Hong Kong's retail sector has been hit by the decline and pharmacies are among those suffering. Scrapping the limit of 1.8kg per person is being touted by the industry as a straightforward way of rejuvenating sales. But even as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was in Beijing urging authorities to help revive the tourism sector, officials here were firm that the rule would stay in place. A spokesman said that as "pregnant women coming to Hong Kong for delivery and bulk purchase of milk powder are not tourist activities, the government has no intention to change the relevant policies".

Equating women seeking Hong Kong permanent residency for their babies with purchasing several weeks' supply of milk formula is a flawed analogy. Similarly, a small number of people are trying to profit from buying in bulk; the majority want it for their children. Criminalising visitors for their shopping habits contributes to anti-mainlander sentiment. That dislike was behind the first protests in six months against cross-border visitors at Sheung Shui on Sunday.

It is arguable that there are still supply shortfalls of baby formula. The industry does not believe so, contending that suppliers of the six most popular brands can readily restock shelves in any part of the city. That leaves the matter of free market principles being violated. There is even a belief that the rule is protectionist and infringes on World Trade Organisation regulations. Given the negatives, and the benefits, Hong Kong would best be served by the scrapping of the two-can rule.