Cheap cigarettes in Hong Kong could tempt more teens to smoke

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 4:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 9:51pm

Recently, while visiting a grocery store in Wong Tai Sin, I noticed some obscure brands of cigarettes priced as low as HK$29 per pack. I then learned from smokers I spoke to that these cheap brands were available in a number of shops and news stands in Wong Tai Sin and Tsz Wan Shan.

This surprised me, because no packet of cigarettes where the necessary tax is paid could be sold at such a low price. I understand a pack of regular cigarettes in the city is sold at around HK$55, of which about HK$38 is tobacco tax, accounting for nearly 70 per cent of the retail price. If the retail price of a pack is as low as HK$29, it raises serious doubts as to whether such products have entered the Hong Kong market through legitimate means, and raises questions about tax evasion.

This is a cause for concern. Tobacco taxes significantly elevate retail prices and this can deter some people from smoking, especially young people with a limited disposable income. Therefore, untaxed cheap cigarettes would definitely appeal to teenagers.

Also, smokers attempting to quit may find it more difficult to kick the habit because of the availability of these cut-price products. Allowing the proliferation of these cigarettes in the city surely undermines the objectives of a tobacco tax.

The sources of the cheap cigarettes remain uncertain. These products are not regulated under existing Hong Kong ordinances and are unlikely to have undergone any laboratory tests, meaning their ingredients are unknown and their quality is questionable. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for the government to trace the manufacturers and hold them responsible if any quality problems arose.

These untaxed and cheap cigarettes rob the public coffers of significant tax revenue, which could have been spent on public health and other meaningful causes, instead of going into the pockets of whoever is distributing them.

The government seems determined to enlarge graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging to reduce the social appeal of smoking, but allows these tax-free cigarettes to be sold at low prices. This is hardly consistent with trying to get more people to quit.

I urge officials to look into these cut-price cigarettes, before their access becomes so widespread as to undermine the effectiveness of the government’s tobacco control efforts.

Grace Chan, Fanling