Excise doesn't cover true cost of tobacco

We refer to the article by Peter Wong, executive director of The Lion Rock Institute ('Lifestyle choices go up in smoke with tax rises', January 31).

The article has the hallmarks of the PR department of Big Tobacco. The institute claims to be an 'independent think tank'. On its website it states that it 'will accept donations from any body or person, as long as it is not from the government'. However, there is acknowledged funding from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and International Policy Network.

A Google search for these two named organisations including the word 'tobacco' is revealing and begs the question of how 'independent' The Lion Rock Institute is.

Mr Wong stated that government tax policy on tobacco was not working because the number of smokers had increased and legitimate cigarette sales were down. The actual excise paid on cigarette sales (according to Hong Kong Customs and Excise) was - HK$3.45 billion (2007); HK$3.79 billion (2008); HK$2.88 billion (2009); HK$3.1 billion (2010). The truth is that the 50 per cent excise increase in 2009 'for health reasons' resulted in of 902.9 million fewer cigarettes being sold legally during 2009.

Mr Wong chooses to ignore the data that youth smoking has correspondingly also decreased. The figures actually show the result of the failure to increase the tobacco tax in 2010 and use retail price elasticity for the protection of young people from nicotine addiction.

Cigarettes remained too affordable and sales actually increased by 250.2 million sticks in 2010 compared with 2009.

His claim that 'taxing away an addiction won't work, but education does' is a favourite tobacco industry mantra. The industry's biggest fear is that tobacco will become less affordable for young people, that is, their future market.

We hope the government will be mindful of the fact that the external cost of disease caused by tobacco is twice the revenue from excise duty.

Paid neo-libertarian organisations around the world are challenging responsible government action on tobacco control, and Hong Kong is now targeted. This must mean that Hong Kong is doing the right things regarding tax increases, legislation and other measures to reduce tobacco use and improve and protect public health.

Professor Sian Griffiths, department of community health, Chinese University, on behalf of four other health experts

Very humble singles' homes

I accompanied a friend recently to check out cheap flats for singles. The real estate agent suggested some newly renovated units with a toilet and private entrance in Kowloon for about HK$3,500 per month. To our surprise, these kinds of offers are quite common.

The agent said these were 'cut-up' rooms, made possible by ingenious property owners 'cutting up' large 50-year old flats. We entered one of two flats on one floor and found another area of steel-door entrances. The property owner had made four units out of his former residence.

The unit I visited resembled an emergency shelter more than home: a shower head without a showering area, and a cooking area without a sink or stove but with electrical wiring on the wall five feet away.

Housing for single residents is a neglected issue in housing development plans. While Chinese value family closeness, more and more people live alone.

The current state of housing problems sadly makes possible the rise of such poor living arrangements.

Teresa Thai, Wan Chai

Killjoys in charge Carine Lai comments on the government's predilection for killing off things people like ('Rezoning will destroy areas' biggest appeal', February 11).

In Hong Kong, it seems we positively target for destruction areas normal people especially enjoy (Wedding Card Street, the Graham Street market, dai pai dong) or we attack the pleasures they find in them (by putting railings on country walks and shotcrete in country parks).

And yet endless acres of dereliction can be left untouched for decades, with Kai Tak, parts of Kwun Tong and New Territories container parks being the obvious examples.

Why does the government lead the destruction of areas that people are drawn to and like, while those areas that seem hopeless and unattractive are left alone?

Why does the government not drive high-level policy developments to allow the market to deal faster with areas that need regeneration?

Why can't it, for example, enable a shift from lease-driven land usage to zoning laws and policies that liberalise the use of old industrial areas for residential use?

Paul Serfaty, Mid-Levels

Use Peak for wind power

Further to Rikin Lau's plea for Hong Kong to be more proactive in adopting wind power ('Wind power so important', February 10). There are a number of serious limitations with the energy source.

First, wind is very fickle, and there are few places on earth that are close to high population centres where the wind is regularly strong and steady. For some periods of time, wind farms produce very little electricity. What would a city of 7 million inhabitants do if a large component of its power supply was periodically unavailable?

Second, windmills are incredibly inefficient, so you need ridiculously large numbers of turbines to generate meaningful quantities of energy.

Third, wind farms are an eyesore.

I note from Rikin Lau's letter that he/she is a Peak dweller. Such a locale, I suspect, is as good as anywhere in Hong Kong to site a wind farm. I suggest he/she encourages the government to set up a prototype power system there from which we can all assess its economic viability and its aesthetic impact. It would be interesting to see how the neighbours react.

Jason Ali, Sheung WanBig benefits in free flu shots

Regarding the article ('Poor policies blamed for surge in flu patients', February 10).

I echo Medical Association president Choi Kin's remark that the Centre for Health Protection fell short of public expectations in disease prevention. The centre should be more proactive.

All the scientific evidence indicates the benefits of getting immunised outweigh the risks. And don't forget that infected or sick individuals also spread the disease.

Even in the litigious United States, free flu shots are provided at shopping malls and car parks prior to flu seasons. The cost of providing free vaccine is minuscule compared to the cost of hospital treatment.

I have heard too many parents saying that the reason for not getting their children immunised - or themselves for that matter - was the high cost, at HK$180 to HK$400 a shot at private clinics.

Alexander Lai, Kowloon Tong

School childcare can help poor

Community advocates have called on the financial secretary to implement policies to help the poor, including introducing childcare centres in schools.

This would go some way to reducing the wealth gap.

If low-income parents need to take care of their children around the clock, they may not be able to go out to work.

But parents cannot leave their children at home alone because it can be very dangerous.

Introducing childcare centres in schools is a way of overcoming this problem.

Parents could leave their children in school even after school hours and go to work without worrying about their safety. This would also be free so that this would not increase the financial burden on the poor.

Wong Po-huen, Tsuen Wan

Answer needed on food process

Recently, I saw a video on YouTube called They kidnapped Ronald McDonald.

It was created by a Finnish group called the Food Liberation Army.

The masked men in the video pretended to be al-Qaeda-style terrorists and claimed to be holding Ronald McDonald hostage.

The threatened to 'kill him' if McDonald's did not answer questions about the company's food production process. But McDonald's did not answer their questions.

Almost everyone likes eating the food at McDonald's and it's important to know what we are eating.

I do hope the fast food giant will be more considerate.

Enterprises should respect the interests of consumers, and give priority to the safety and quality of goods and services.

Bella Chan Ki-sum, Kwun Tong

Close cracks of concern in MTR

I refer to the article ('MTR rail cracks were serious, government says', February 13).

As an MTR passenger, this worries me. It is not only the responsibility of the MTR Corporation, but also the government, to maintain passenger safety.

There still appears to be a loophole in the monitoring of the system's safety, given that not all cases of vertical cracks were reported. The government should ensure the corporation reports all serious cases.

The Hong Kong government is the biggest shareholder in the MTR, so it can ask the corporation to increase the time spent checking the tracks. I believe that we should not rely too much on visual inspections and the corporation should check the tracks using ultrasound more frequently.

Cheng Yu-lo, Tsuen Wan