Long-Term Tobacco Policy Concern Group submits statement to Department of Health opposing tobacco tax increase

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27th September 2023 – (Hong Kong) The consultation period for tobacco control by the Department of Health is coming to an end, and the Long-Term Tobacco Policy Concern Group believes that smokers are important stakeholders in tobacco control policies and hopes that the government will listen to their voices during the consultation period. To better understand public opinion, the concern group has visited different areas of Hong Kong over the past two months to gather feedback from smokers regarding various tobacco control measures proposed by the government. The group has compiled and submitted a statement to representatives of the Department of Health, hoping to provide a comprehensive range of opinions and encourage officials and anti-smoking organisations to listen to the public.

Regarding the proposal to “significantly increase tobacco tax by 75% of the retail price,” the concern group opposes this suggestion, citing smoking rate data in Hong Kong. The data shows that between 2008 and 2014, Hong Kong increased tobacco tax three times, two of which were significant increases. However, despite the three tax increases over a six-year period, the smoking rate only decreased by 1.2%. In contrast, between 2014 and 2022, with no increase in tobacco tax, the smoking rate decreased by 1.1%. These periods saw similar declines in smoking rates, indicating that increasing tobacco tax does not have a direct correlation with reducing smoking rates. Joe Lo Kai-lut, the convener of the Long-Term Tobacco Policy Concern Group, strongly opposes a significant increase in tobacco tax, as it has been ineffective in accelerating the decline in smoking rates and has had the unintended consequence of fueling the illicit trade of cigarettes.

Regarding the government’s long-term goal of achieving a smoke-free Hong Kong, the concern group points out that New Zealand, recognised as a “tobacco control pioneer,” currently has a smoking rate of 8% and aims to achieve a smoke-free goal by 2025, excluding novel tobacco products. The concern group believes that the key difference between Hong Kong and New Zealand lies in the clear and humanistic logic behind the local government’s tobacco control measures. For example, New Zealand adopts a regulatory and promotional approach towards novel tobacco products, gradually tightening control over traditional cigarettes with the aim of encouraging adult smokers to switch to novel tobacco products as a harm reduction strategy. Even New Zealand’s “smoke-free generation” policy only bans the sale of traditional cigarettes while allowing novel tobacco products. In contrast, the previous Hong Kong government categorically rejected the possibility of using novel tobacco products as harm reduction alternatives. The objective reality is that without embracing a “tobacco harm reduction” strategy, it is difficult for Hong Kong to achieve its tobacco control goals.

Regarding the suggestion to “prohibit the provision of tobacco to individuals born after a certain year,” the concern group believes that raising the legal age for purchasing cigarettes is already sufficient to protect young people and that the right of choice for adult consumers should not be taken away. They are concerned that a blanket ban may lead to a normalisation of purchasing illicit cigarettes from the black market.

Regarding suggestions such as “expanding smoke-free areas” and “banning smoking while walking,” the concern group believes that the government’s current tobacco control proposals are all focused on “punishment” or “prohibition,” which may make smokers feel excluded and penalised, leading to further underground smoking and making it more difficult to regulate. This poses a greater threat to public health. The concern group suggests that the government consider providing incentives and rewards to encourage smokers to quit smoking, rather than adopting a paternalistic approach that targets smokers at every turn.

According to a previous survey conducted by the concern group, 80% of smokers surveyed agreed that a significant increase in tobacco tax could potentially fuel the illicit cigarette market. Looking at the figures of confiscated illicit cigarettes by customs, as of 8th July this year, the number had reached 431 million, with a market value exceeding HK$1.4 billion, indicating a significant increase in the influx of illicit cigarettes. The concern group believes that further tax increases will not contribute to tobacco control efforts but will instead lead to the normalisation of purchasing illicit cigarettes from the black market. Additionally, according to the same survey by the concern group, only about 40% of smokers surveyed said they had noticed government quit-smoking service information in the past year, and nearly 80% of them considered these services to be ineffective. The concern group believes that Hong Kong’s current tobacco control policies face significant obstacles in the form of a rampant illicit cigarette trade and ineffective quit-smoking services. To achieve effective tobacco control, resources should be focused on combating illicit cigarettes and improving the effectiveness of quit-smoking services, rather than adopting a parental approach that targets smokers at every turn.

The concern group also suggests that the government consider examples from overseas, such as smoking rooms or designated smoking areas in Japan and Europe, to delineate smoking areas and reduce the impact of second-hand smoke on non-smokers.