Raising tobacco tax would save Hongkongers' lives

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 3:44am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 3:44am

The possibility of raising tobacco tax has come under the spotlight recently. The Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health advocates that the government should raise the tobacco tax substantially to encourage smokers to kick the habit and prevent children from starting to smoke. Yet, the tobacco industry and its allies strongly oppose tax increases and reiterate their worries on the proliferation of illicit cigarettes.

Tobacco is addictive and lethal. It is proven that one in every two smokers will be killed by smoking. Although smoking prevalence in Hong Kong has dropped to its record low, 10.7 per cent, there are still around 645,000 smokers.

To save their lives, raising tobacco tax is an effective means.

The tobacco tax was increased by 50 per cent in 2009 and 41.5 per cent in 2011. Researchers found that the tax hikes induced smokers to quit, reduced the initiation and uptake of tobacco use among young people, and lowered the consumption of tobacco products among current smokers. The overall smoking prevalence dropped from 12 per cent in 2009 to 10.7 per cent in 2012, while the smoking prevalence of secondary school students decreased from 6.9 per cent in 2008 to 3 per cent in 2013. Nearly one-third (32.8 per cent) of ex-smokers who quit after 2011 stated that the tax increase in 2011 made them more determined to quit. Moreover, 31.4 per cent of current smokers reduced daily consumption after the 2011 tax increase.

The tobacco tax has been frozen for two consecutive years and the effect of tax increase has been gradually absorbed by inflation. It is now the right time to raise the tobacco tax. A survey conducted by the School of Public Health, The University of Hong Kong also showed that over 65 per cent of respondents supported a tobacco tax increase.

Public health should not be set aside due to the worries on illicit cigarettes. In fact, strict enforcement and strengthening legislation are the most effective measures to combat the illegal trade of tobacco products. The Customs and Excise Department has already set up dedicated teams to combat illicit cigarettes.

Of course, raising tobacco tax is not the only tobacco control measure. Extending the designated no-smoking areas, introducing plain packaging, banning point-of-sale tobacco display, strengthening smoke-free education, promotion and smoking cessation services, as well as combating illicit cigarettes are all part of a comprehensive package of initiatives that the government should adopt to deter people from smoking and to prevent the 7,000 deaths caused by smoking and second-hand smoking per year in Hong Kong.

Lisa Lau, chairman, Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health