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Hong Kong health care and hospitals

We did not bow to e-cigarette makers in rejecting full ban, Hong Kong health chief Sophia Chan says

Minister says government being pragmatic in planned regulations on increasingly popular – and controversial – product

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2018, 3:50pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2018, 11:26pm

Hong Kong’s health minister defended her decision not to ban electronic cigarettes on Saturday, saying the government was being pragmatic in its planned regulations.

Having turned down the total ban suggested by her own bureau in 2015, Sophia Chan Siu-chee said officials did not rule out more stringent controls in future.

She denied she had backed down to e-cigarette producers and said a complete ban was only “one way of regulating cigarettes”.

Producers have argued that e-cigarettes should not be treated the same as traditional cigarettes, but doctors have called for a complete ban on them, arguing they are no less of a health risk than their forerunners.

The government plans to effectively allow the controlled sale of e-cigarettes, as well as putting health warnings on them similar to those on traditional cigarettes. To start with, officials will align the rate of tax on e-cigarettes with the one on traditional tobacco.

“Sometimes things need to be taken step by step,” Chan told a radio programme on Saturday. “I hope the medical sector does not see this as relaxing control. We are strengthening regulation instead.”

After noting the calls for a ban but also that e-cigarettes have already become very popular, Chan said: “What we are doing is a more pragmatic approach. If there is more international research on the [effects of e-cigarettes], we would not rule out putting more stringent rules in place.”

Sometimes things need to be taken step by step ... We are strengthening regulation instead
Sophia Chan, health minister

Chan, a public health expert and leading scholar in tobacco control, added that the increasingly popular heat-not-burn cigarettes – which will also come under regulated sale – still contain addictive nicotine and can harm health. Heat-not-burn products are technically illegal, but the ban has been rarely enforced.

“The tobacco producers said these cigarettes are less harmful, but the government has tested them and even though they may contain less harmful addictive elements, that doesn’t mean they are not harmful to health,” Chan said.

The Legislative Council’s health panel was scheduled to scrutinise the government’s new regulation on Tuesday. Among 82 public submissions to the panel was one from the local medical profession, calling for a complete ban on e-cigarettes. The joint submission came from the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, the Academy of Medicine, the Academy of Nursing, the Anti-Cancer Society and 20 NGOs and health bodies. Other doctors’ groups, including the Medical Association, echoed the call.

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The Coalition on Tobacco Affairs, an industry group, supported “proportionate” regulation on e-cigarettes but rejected the idea of a ban, raising it to a matter of constitutional rights.

“Imposing overly restrictive laws on a specific type of product can potentially violate brand owners’ constitutionally protected rights,” it argued in its submission to Legco.

Aside from support from local bars such as Dragon-i Group, and hawkers from multiple districts, support for the industry came from advertising and creative industries, including global firm Leo Burnett.