Meeting the recommended international standard for tobacco tax is not enough for Hong Kong - it can and should go further, a World Health Organisation official said ahead of an expected increase in the cost of smoking in Wednesday's budget.
Dr Carmen Audera-Lopez, acting team leader of the WHO's tobacco-free initiative in the Western Pacific region, said an expected increase in tobacco tax would only make up for inflation since the last rise in 2011.
Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah is expected to increase the flat HK$34 duty on a pack of 20 cigarettes by between HK$4 and HK$8, meaning that the tax rate would be above the WHO recommended rate of 70 per cent on all brands, an increase of between 11 and 24 per cent. Mainland brands like Double Happiness sell for about HK$43 per pack, with international brands such as Camel costing HK$50 to HK$52.
"The Hong Kong government has the capacity to go higher." Audera-Lopez said. "The suggested tax increase is only a moderate one and considering that it has not been increased since 2011, it is probably just compensating for inflation."
For tax rises to work, she said, they must be regular and make the habit less affordable.
Encouraging governments to increase tobacco taxes will be the theme of World No Tobacco Day on May 31.
Anti-smoking campaigners had pressed the government to go much further, with some suggesting the duty be doubled.
Lam Tai-hing, chair professor of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said experiences from other regions showed that drastic tax measures were needed to make an impact. Doubling tax could lead to a fall of one percentage point in the proportion of the population who smoked, he said.
The most drastic tobacco-tax increase in Hong Kong's history came in 1983, when duty went up 300 per cent. The proportion of smokers fell from 23.3 per cent of Hongkongers aged 15 or over the year before, to 19.9 per cent afterwards. When the tax was doubled in 1991, the proportion fell from 15.7 per cent to 14.9 per cent.
"The two major tax increases in the past were important factors in reaching our low smoking population today," he said. About 10.7 per cent of adult Hongkongers smoke, some 650,000 people, one of the lowest rates in the developed world. The rate on the mainland is more than three times as high.
The success is such that the city's Tobacco Control Centre was appointed by the WHO to train professionals from around the region in fighting smoking.
But Lam sees no grounds for complacency. "We're worried that if the scope of the tax increase is not enough, people will look at the outcome and say the effects are not big," he said.
The charity Lok Sin Tong interviewed 100 smokers who refused to accept its smoking cessation services when offered in an outreach programme.
Some 15 per cent said a rise of 24 per cent would make them quit, while 20 per cent would not quit no matter how high taxes went. Lam said the findings were in line with his experience.
Audera-Lopez says a tax increase would have the biggest effect on young smokers.
"Children and adolescents are also more sensitive to price increases than adults," she said. Some 2 per cent of Hongkongers aged 15 to 19 smoked in 2012, a household survey by the Census and Statistics Department found, down from 2.4 per cent in 2007.
But even a modest tax increase is expected to face opposition in the Legislative Council. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong has already come out against it, and the League of Social Democrats' "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung cast doubt on the government's claims of success against smoking.
"When you're asking about something that's taboo in society, people won't tell you they're doing it," said Leung, a smoker for 40 years. He believes a tax increase will push smokers towards illicit cigarettes.
The number of smuggled cigarettes seized by customs was up 41 per cent year on year in 2013, to more than 38 million.
The Coalition on Tobacco Affairs, an industry-funded lobby group, urged the government to tackle the illicit trade before raising tax, and to keep duty increases moderate to avoid a "shock effect" that drove smokers to the black market.