Tobacco-free future for city no pipe dream

21 September 2023

By SCMP Editorial

  • Researchers say higher taxes now and eventually a complete smoking ban may be required if Hong Kong is to stamp out the habit for good

Stamping out the last embers of Hong Kong’s stubborn smoking habit may require higher taxes and a complete ban on tobacco from 2030, according to researchers at a top medical school in the city. Policymakers should carefully consider their conclusions. The University of Hong Kong (HKU) experts called for next year’s budget to increase the tobacco tax to 75 per cent of retail costs, and for future increases to be pegged to inflation.

Dr Daniel Ho Sai-yin, an associate professor at the HKU School of Public Health, did not mince words when delivering his team’s assessment last week, saying “tobacco products should be banned like drugs”.

The researchers said the moves appeared to be the only way to prevent children from being exposed to second-hand smoke at home, where many smokers now light up since strict tobacco controls are widely enforced in public places.

HKU has been studying the problem through surveys conducted every two years between 2010 and 2020. Alarmingly, nearly 60 per cent of schoolchildren surveyed reported being exposed to second-hand smoke at home in 2020, up from 33 per cent a decade earlier. Such exposure has been linked to lower academic achievement and family income. A ban within seven years was described as reasonable since the city already has a low percentage of smokers – nearly 600,000 or about 9.5 per cent of the population.

Financial disincentives may be the only way to go. The city raised the tobacco tax in February to 64 per cent of the retail price, but still well below the 75 per cent benchmark set by the World Health Organization.

HKU says its surveys show the proposals have the support of 77 per cent of Hongkongers, including almost 20 per cent of smokers. Many smokers admitted they hoped higher taxes would help them quit the habit.

The Long-term Tobacco Policy Concern Group, a smokers’ lobbying body, insists it is impractical to cut smoking rates so fast and so soon. But the health benefits for all, especially young children, are reason enough to push for a tobacco-free future.

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