Public education programme can curb illicit cigarettes sales

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 12:25am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 12:25am


The proliferation of illicit tobacco in Hong Kong is at an unprecedented level, with more than one in three cigarettes being illegal.

The release of an academic study this month was not controversial to the many smokers who patronise the trade, and any dispute about pricing not being one of the primary drivers is specious in the extreme.

Whether or not 35.9 per cent of the cigarettes consumed in Hong Kong are illicit is not really the issue; the fact that Hong Kong stands second in the league table of this shameful illicit trade is something the authorities and the community at large cannot ignore.

Illicit trading is clearly a matter of supply and demand. Whether the commodities involved are cigarettes, counterfeit goods or dangerous drugs, there will always be enterprising criminals willing to flout the law to meet that demand.

The higher the profit margin, the more attractive the enterprise, especially when the risks are assessed to be low, with minimal penalties for those who get caught.

Only Brunei topped Hong Kong in the league table, with almost 90 per cent of cigarettes consumed estimated to be illegal.

This astronomical percentage should not come as a surprise given the steep rise in prices, following an excessive excise tax increase in 2010. This, together with the implementation of stringent licensing requirements for retailers, effectively forced the whole market underground.

Hong Kong United Against Illicit Tobacco does not suggest, much less support, any cut in excise duty on cigarettes. Taxation is a matter for the government, but the authorities should be concerned that we are losing over HK$3 billion in taxes to organised crime that is behind the trade in illicit cigarettes.

The role of this advocacy group is to raise public awareness and speak for those who are genuinely concerned about a very real problem that is not going to go away without more robust law enforcement.

To date, I am not convinced the government even acknowledges the problem, much less the scale, notwithstanding the rising seizures of illicit cigarettes this year. It might help if there was a proactive public education programme like we have seen for counterfeit goods so we may bring about a change of attitude to tackle this menace to society.

Robin Jolly, convenor, Hong Kong United Against Illicit Tobacco