Time to focus on tobacco ads

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 May, 2013, 5:35am

Today, World No Tobacco Day, there is a perverse reason to envy Hongkongers still addicted to smoking: the cost of cigarettes has generally remained stable over the past couple of years, while the prices of most staples and essentials we buy regularly have risen. This is because the government has not raised the tobacco excise tax in the last two budgets, and the industry has not risked greater consumer resistance by adding price increases to previous tax rises.

The World Health Organisation's anti-smoking theme this year is not about taxes, but a call for government support for a ban on the remaining advertising and promotion of smoking, and on sponsorship of sporting and community events by tobacco companies. This is a worthy issue, but the question remains whether the government should have continued raising the tobacco excise in the interests of public health, given that the product is blamed for six million deaths a year - 10 per cent of them passive smokers. After all, the WHO and anti-smoking activists say price is the greatest deterrent to new smokers. The organisation says a tobacco excise tax should exceed 70 per cent of the marked price.

The government can argue that Hong Kong already comes close. But on other counts the current price of cigarettes here is no deterrent. It is below recommendations by international authorities and cheap compared with Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, where they cost two to three times as much. Government concern for the cost of living of the poor is understandable but, as the Asian Development Bank has pointed out, tobacco tax increases are arguably pro-poor because they reap a lot of the health benefits.

Thanks to education, indoor smoking bans and tax increases, only an estimated 11 to 12 per cent of Hongkongers over 15 now smoke. Apart from pricing and effective enforcement of smoking bans, control of tobacco advertising is one of the most effective means of reducing the attraction of smoking to young people.