19th February 2024 – (Hong Kong) As a densely populated metropolis, clean air is a precious public asset in Hong Kong. Yet lax tobacco controls allow smoking to persist, polluting lungs and straining healthcare. With the government developing its next budget, experts urge raising tobacco taxes by at least 75% to meet World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. This overdue move would motivate quitting, deter youth smoking and help secure a smoke-free future for Hong Kong.

Despite falling smoking rates, tobacco continues inflicting a heavy toll in Hong Kong. Smoking causes nearly 7,000 deaths annually – a fifth of total yearly fatalities. Secondhand smoke also claims over 700 more lives. Beyond lives lost, smoking imposes $5.6 billion in annual economic costs. And the full damage remains pervasive. The youth smoking rate refuses to decline, jeopardising the next generation. Inhaled toxins and litter degrade Hong Kong’s environment. Meanwhile, treating tobacco-induced cancers and diseases burdens public finances.

Yet current policies fail reflecting smoking’s severity. Cigarette taxes remain among the lowest in developed economies. At just 63% of pack prices, Hong Kong’s tobacco duty lingers far below the WHO’s advised 75% minimum. This affordability sustains smoking rates higher than Asian peers like Singapore and Australia.

A widely endorsed solution exists – steeply raise tobacco taxes. Global evidence affirms higher levies slash smoking most effectively through deterring youth and motivating quitting. But long frozen taxes due to industry influence hamstring progress.

Economists identify tobacco taxes as the single most potent intervention for curbing smoking. Taxes directly raise prices, making cigarettes less affordable. High costs strongly incentivise quitting, prevent youth uptake and reduce daily consumption. Contrary to industry propaganda, the poor benefit most from tobacco taxes. Low incomes make cigarettes’ bite larger, so higher costs compel quitting. The savings then enhance living standards.

Concerns about fuelling illicit trade are also overblown. Customs data shows no spike in smuggling after previous Hong Kong tax hikes. Better enforcement remains key. Similarly, claims that higher taxes are unpopular are false – polls reveal most citizens, including smokers, support increases. Meanwhile, tax hikes deliver a boon for public finances. Revenue gains accompanied by lower healthcare spending gives government resources for other priorities. This win-win for health and fiscal budgets makes tobacco taxes uniquely prudent.

Compared globally, Hong Kong lags in harnessing tobacco taxes effectively. Most Western jurisdictions, from France to Australia, adopt taxes exceeding 75% of pack prices – some surpassing 90% – in line with WHO guidance. Closer to home, mainland China, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines also impose duties constituting over 70% of cost. Yet Hong Kong clings to just 63% despite far higher income levels. The result – cigarettes remain around 40% more affordable in Hong Kong than regional peers. This mismatch between health risks and punitive taxation cannot persist. Hong Kong must catch up worldwide norms by raising tobacco taxes steeply in the 2024-25 budget.

The medical community proposes a minimum 75% increase to meet the WHO threshold. This would lift the tax from around HK$38 currently to HK$87.5 per pack. The total retail cost rising to HK$115 would make smoking prohibitively expensive for many.

Economic studies estimate a 75% tax hike could lower smoking prevalence from 9.5% to 8.8%, as around 28,000 smokers quit while youth are deterred. Better health saves $5 billion in social costs yearly while generating $4 billion extra revenue. Lives would be extended and livelihoods enhanced. An “escalator” mechanism should then mandate automatic annual tax increases above inflation to ensure continual impact.

The public widely backs strong tobacco control. A recent survey showed almost 70% of citizens, including most smokers, endorse a further tobacco tax rise. This public health mandate gives policymakers political leeway to enact WHO-aligned hikes despite industry opposition. The government reportedly mulls new tobacco control legislation in 2024. Amending tax levels should be incorporated within this broader suite of policies prioritising public well-being over corporate profits. Moreover, current economic doldrums increase the imperative for fiscal reforms raising revenue. Tobacco taxes offer a rare opportunity for gains on both health and budgetary fronts.

There will never be a perfect time to confront Hong Kong’s smoking scourge. However, the present alignment of public support, fiscal need and legislative momentum provides an opening for progress. Before it’s too late, Hong Kong must seize this chance to implement the tobacco tax hikes that prevention work and its sustainable future requires. The health of coming generations hangs in the balance.

Increasing tobacco tax is a global best practice that Hong Kong must adopt to reduce smoking prevalence. Steep hikes aligning taxation with regional norms can prevent youth uptake of cigarettes, encourage adult smokers to quit and safeguard non-smokers from secondhand smoke. The public widely endorses higher tobacco taxes, seeing them as benefiting both fiscal and public health. With new tobacco control legislation on the table, the time is ripe to enact WHO-guided reforms. Our children’s futures demand nothing less. Let Hong Kong lead Asia in ensuring the next generation can breathe clean by raising tobacco taxes now.