Hot Topics: Hong Kong’s latest tobacco control proposals – tax rises, bans on future generations buying cigarettes

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  • City’s number of smokers fell to a record low in 2021, and the government wants to bring the rate down to 7.8 per cent of the population by 2025
  • Government advisers have proposed doubling the tobacco tax and banning residents born in 2009 or after from buying cigarettes by 2027
Sue Ng |
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Quitting smoking strengthens a person’s lungs and immune health. Photo: Shutterstock

Hot Topics takes an issue being discussed in the news and allows you to analyse different viewpoints on the subject. Our questions encourage you to examine the topic in-depth. Scroll to the bottom of the page for sample answers.

Context: Hong Kong’s number of smokers falls to record low

  • The number of smokers in Hong Kong fell in 2021 to a record low of fewer than one in 10 residents

  • Scholar credited the success to the government’s tobacco control policies, including a smoking ban in indoor areas and a series of tax rises on cigarettes

The percentage of residents who smoked fell to 9.5 per cent in 2021, down from 10.2 per cent in 2019, according to a government household survey from last August. This is the first time this rate has fallen below double digits.

Hong Kong has a target to bring the number of smokers down to 7.8 per cent of the population by 2025. The goal is to eventually lower that number to 5 per cent.

The fall in smokers comes at the same time as new highs for Hongkongers’ average life expectancy at birth. In 2020, it was 82.7 years for men and 88.1 years for women.

A study was published in The Lancet Public Health journal last November and conducted by seven universities, including the University of Hong Kong (HKU). It looked at 40 years of life expectancy data from Hong Kong, dating from 1960.

The Hong Kong government is mulling a tax rise that would mean a pack of cigarettes currently priced at HK$60 would rise to about HK$100. Photo: Jelly Tse

The key factor for the higher life expectancy, researchers said, was the low prevalence of smoking among Hongkongers. Tobacco use is the most important cause of premature death.

“By contrast with other high-income regions, Hong Kong has achieved one of the lowest overall smoking prevalences in the world,” it said.

Lam Tai-hing credits the 2007 smoking ban in all indoor areas of workplaces and public places for this. He is the chair professor of community medicine at HKU. A series of tax rises on cigarettes in the 2000s also helped more Hongkongers to stop smoking and live longer, he said.

The Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health stressed there was no safe and healthy form of tobacco. Henry Tong, the council chairman, added that quitting smoking strengthened a person’s lungs and immune health, and protected the health of those around them.

Staff writers

Question prompts:

  • What evidence in Context explains why the government is urging people to quit smoking?

  • List TWO tobacco control policies mentioned in Context, and explain how they likely helped reduce the city’s smoking population.

Hong Kong to look at lifetime cigarette ban in bid to reduce youth smoking

Charts

Questions prompts:

  • Describe TWO trends shown in the charts above.

  • Based on information in Context, what might the Council on Smoking and Health have to say about the trends shown in these charts?

Hot topics: Smoke point for city’s electronic cigarettes

News: Government advisers propose ban on cigarettes for future Hong Kong generations

  • Hong Kong’s health minister is considering banning residents born in 2009 or after from buying cigarettes by 2027 to create a “smoke-free Hong Kong”

  • Council on Smoking and Health has proposed a tax rise on tobacco to help people quit smoking

Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau has confirmed that banning tobacco sales for future generations will be on the table in a government bid to reduce youth smoking.

Hong Kong residents born in 2009 or after should be banned from buying cigarettes by 2027, government advisers have proposed. It would mean that when this group of residents reaches 18 years old in 2027 or later, they will not be allowed to buy tobacco products.

“We should not let our guard down despite Hong Kong having one of the world’s lowest smoking rates ... let our new generations no longer be tempted and harmed by tobacco products,” Lo said at an event to mark the 40th anniversary of tobacco control in the city earlier this month.

“Gradually raising the legal age for buying tobacco products and making the next generation not able to buy tobacco products legally forever are among the options.”

New Zealand has adopted the same approach Hong Kong is considering – banning anyone born in 2008 or after from purchasing cigarettes. Photo: Sam Tsang

Without elaborating on how it would enforce such a plan, Lo said the government would look at the experience of other places in stopping young people from taking up the habit and move towards a “smoke-free Hong Kong”.

“It can help achieve the ‘tobacco endgame’,” said Council on Smoking and Health chairman Henry Tong.

Other measures proposed by the statutory body included doubling the current tobacco tax by 2023-24, which means a pack of cigarettes currently priced at HK$60 would rise to around HK$100.

“It is the most effective way to achieve the government’s key performance indicator,” the council’s executive director Vienna Lai Wai-yin said.

The council said the tax should be further raised in the following two years, so a pack of cigarettes would cost HK$200 by 2025-26. Lai said she hoped the long-awaited tax rise would increase incentives for quitting smoking since the last time the government raised the tobacco tax by 11.8 per cent was in 2014.

Staff writers

Question prompts:

  • In News, what are TWO proposed measures to lower the number of smokers in the city? Explain how they aim to create a “smoke-free Hong Kong”.

  • To what extent do you agree with Vienna Lai that doubling the tobacco tax is the most effective way to decrease the city’s smoking population? Explain.

Why e-cigarettes may do more harm to your lungs

Issue: Proposal for stricter ban on cigarettes sparks concerns over freedom of choice, impact on the poor

  • The Council on Smoking and Health has proposed the idea of creating a “smoke-free generation” by the end of the new administration’s five-year term

  • One lawmaker expressed worries that the new proposals would only make cigarettes unaffordable to poorer smokers while harming adults’ freedom of choice

Hong Kong is considering drastic measures to reduce its number of cigarette smokers, while critics argue this could discriminate against the poor and deprive adults of their freedom of choice.

Earlier this month, the Council on Smoking and Health proposed the idea of creating a “smoke-free generation” by the end of the five-year term of the new administration. Proposed measures include a tax rise and banning tobacco sales for those born in 2009 or after.

“I agree with a reasonable tax increase by following the inflation rate, or else [the frozen tax] will sound like encouraging smoking. But if the increase deviates too much, it is discrimination against the poor as the rich will not be affected,” said Lawmaker Shiu Ka-fai, of the pro-business Liberal Party.

The Long-term Tobacco Policy Concern Group, which is formed by smokers, said they opposed the tax increase as smokers might seek black-market cigarettes instead of quitting the habit, adding that it would impact the city’s economic recovery.

At present, Hong Kong law prohibits the sale of smoking products to anyone under the age of 18. Photo: Shutterstock

Shiu stressed that a total ban on those born after a specific year would be too “extreme” a measure and would limit people’s freedom of choice.

“It is true that the underage should not smoke cigarettes, but adults should have the freedom of choice instead of having the government make the decision for them,” he said.

Although he disagreed with the idea of creating a “smoke-free generation”, the lawmaker representing the wholesale and retail sector said he would not oppose raising the legal age for buying cigarettes.

“Some countries also make it 21 years old. In this sense, I have no opposition,” Shiu said. At present, Hong Kong law prohibits the sale of smoking products to anyone under the age of 18. Taiwan recently raised the legal age from 18 to 20. In Singapore and the United States, the limit is 21 years.

Staff writers

Questions prompts:

  • Using Issue, list THREE concerns about the proposed tobacco control measures.

  • To what extent do you agree with Lawmaker Shiu Ka-fai that the idea of creating a “smoke-free generation” is too “extreme”? Explain.

Big tobacco’s environmental impact is ‘devastating’, says WHO

Sample answers

Context:

  • What evidence in Context explains why the government is urging people to quit smoking? It can extend people’s life expectancy by preventing the diseases associated with tobacco use. (accept other reasonable answers)

  • List TWO tobacco control policies mentioned in Context, and explain how they likely helped reduce the city’s smoking population. The smoking ban in all indoor areas implemented in 2007 made smoking less accessible for Hongkongers. Tax rises on cigarettes made smoking less affordable and reduced consumption.

Charts:

  • Describe TWO trends shown in the charts above. The number of daily e-cigarette smokers has rapidly increased from less than 1,000 in 2015 to 17,500 in 2021. The number of Form One to Six students consuming e-cigarettes daily has dropped slightly from 2014’s 4,740 to 2021’s 3,630.

  • Based on information in Context, what might the Council on Smoking and Health have to say about the trends shown in these charts? In Context, the council stressed that there was no safe and healthy form of tobacco, which includes e-cigarettes.

News:

  • In News, what are TWO proposed measures to lower the number of smokers in the city? Explain how they aim to create a “smoke-free Hong Kong”. Banning residents born in or after 2009 from buying smoking products aims to gradually end the sale of tobacco in the city. Increasing the tobacco tax would make smoking less affordable and accessible to increase incentives for people to quit. The first measure would aim to stop younger generations from smoking, while the tax raise would incentivise older smokers to give up the habit.

  • To what extent do you agree with Vienna Lai that doubling the tobacco tax is the most effective way to decrease the city’s smoking population? Explain. Although raising the tobacco tax could make smoking less affordable, it would only affect low- or middle-income smokers. It cannot help those who are wealthy enough to afford the tax.

Issue:

  • Using Issue, list THREE concerns about the proposed tobacco control measures. Discriminates against the poor; deprives adults of their freedom of choice; incentivises people to buy cigarettes from the black market

  • To what extent do you agree with Lawmaker Shiu Ka-fai that the idea of creating a “smoke-free generation” is too “extreme”? Explain. I support banning smoking for the next generation to save lives and protect the environment. Tobacco remains one of the world’s major causes of preventable illness and death, and it is not only harmful to smokers but also others exposed to secondhand smoke. Although some people may say the lifetime smoking ban is too radical because it deprives people of their right to choose, it is necessary to protect our planet. Smoking pollutes the atmosphere, and the discarded cigarette butts contain toxic chemicals that pollute our soil and water.

Get the word out

e-cigarettes

also called an e-cig or vape. It is an electronic device that allows users to breathe in nicotine – an addictive drug in tobacco – using vapour rather than smoke.

life expectancy

the number of years a person can expect to live. Hong Kong’s life expectancy is longer than most high-income regions with 83.2 years for men and 87.9 years for women in 2021.

smoke-free generation

the plan to create a young generation that has no smokers. Hong Kong aims to achieve this by phasing out tobacco sales to people born after a specified date.

tobacco control legislation

aims to reduce the uptake of smoking among non-smokers and increase successful quitting among smokers. Hong Kong’s Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance was first enacted in 1982 with several amendments after. The city has banned smoking in indoor areas of workplaces and public places, and authorities regulate the sale of tobacco products. Tobacco advertisements in any publication are prohibited. Selling alternative smoking products, such as e-cigarettes, herbal cigarettes, or heated tobacco products, has been banned since April.

tobacco endgame

the final stage of Hong Kong’s plan to completely eliminate tobacco consumption. In Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s maiden policy address last month, he set a target to reduce the smoking rate to 7.8 per cent by 2025. This aims to phase out tobacco products and strengthen relevant policies to end the tobacco epidemic.

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