This is a last-ditch public attempt to persuade the government to introduce tobacco tax increases in the budget on February 27, following our direct submissions to the administration, last year and this year.
Price measures have been shown around the world to be the single, most effective measure in reducing tobacco use, especially among the young. The protection of young people from addiction to tobacco should be one of Hong Kong's highest public health priorities. Further, the Asian Development Bank has named tobacco tax increases as "pro-poor" as they would reap a substantial proportion of the health benefits of reduced smoking. Rises in tobacco duty are recognised by the World Bank, World Health Organisation, the World Economic Forum, and the UN Development Programme, as essential public health measures to reduce smoking rates.
The current price of cigarettes here is below all recommendations by international authorities. Hong Kong's tobacco is cheap in relation to gross domestic product per capita and in comparison with other jurisdictions. For example, in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and Britain, cigarettes cost approximately two to three times more. In Singapore, the cost is HK$76, compared with less than HK$50 in Hong Kong.
Previous tax rises in the SAR have not been great enough to meet the WHO/World Bank recommendations and, with no increase in 2012 and 2013, the effect on reducing consumption would be quickly and progressively diminished. The government will be seen to be inconsistent and uncommitted in reducing tobacco consumption, saving lives and protecting the health of the citizens. If there is no tax increase this year, it would result in a real price decrease, the equivalent of an anti-public health measure, and leave the government responsible for thousands of deaths in Hong Kong.
Thinking ahead, a major concern for Hong Kong is the fear that, in the present political climate, public health measures might be voted down in Legco simply on a reflex basis that anything the government currently suggests will be opposed.
We hope this will not be the case, as it would be shameful if Legco were to vote down such a budgetary pro-health measure.
One in two smokers is killed by tobacco. It only requires political will to save lives by the cost-effective measure of raising tobacco tax.
Lisa Lau, chair, Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, on behalf of a group of academic and non-governmental organisation health professionals