Be bold in stubbing out use of tobacco

24 July 2023

By SCMP editorial

Health officials want Hong Kong to achieve an ‘end-game’ by reducing smoking prevalence to 5 per cent or below, a target that will take sometimes controversial measures to reach

It is regrettable that health authorities are stepping back from previous bold proposals to discourage tobacco use, including banning Hongkongers born after a certain date from buying cigarettes.

The generational ban was floated after New Zealand moved to halt tobacco sales to anyone born in 2009 or after, a measure expected to come into force in 2027.

A similar ban is still among 17 possible measures included in a questionnaire being distributed citywide over the next two months. The open-ended public consultation is what health minister Lo Chung-mau hopes will help officials “keep up with the times” as they draft strategies to protect the next generation from the harms of tobacco and ensure sustainability of the healthcare system.

The consultation will cover four strategies – regulating supply and suppressing demand, banning promotion and reducing attractiveness, expanding non-smoking areas and mitigating harm, as well as enhancing education and supporting smokers trying to quit.

There were no concrete measures in the strategies Lo outlined on July 12, and a source told the Post that decision makers had grave concerns about opposition from smokers and the business sector.

Such concerns are understandable given the harsh reality of the range of public opinion about life choices and how individuals care for themselves. One policy concern group formed by smokers has cited a possible surge in black-market tobacco sales, an issue underscored by a recent customs operation in Kwai Chung that led to the arrests of eight men and the seizure of HK$82 million worth of contraband cigarettes.

Other measures up for consideration include licences for tobacco sellers, requiring tobacco buyers to use a government app to prove how old they are, and increasing the tobacco tax to 75 per cent of the package price – a target the World Health Organization has recommended. The government in February raised the duty on a pack of cigarettes by HK$12 and annual hikes are being considered.

 

Hong Kong’s smoking rate stands at 9.5 per cent, or nearly 600,000 people. Health officials want the city to achieve a “tobacco end-game” by reducing smoking prevalence to 5 per cent or below. Keeping all options on the table seems wise when better public health is the goal.