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Friday, February 21, 2014, 10:25
Focus HK: When the smoke clears
By Andrea Deng

Focus HK: When the smoke clears

Focus HK: When the smoke clears

Rumors are flying that the government may double the tax on tobacco when next week’s budget is announced. While smokers are dismayed, many observers believe the tax increase could be a big step toward making Hong Kong one of the most smoke-free cities in the world. Andrea Deng writes.

Talk to smokers almost anywhere and they will assure you, they get no justice, averring with equal vehemence that tax authorities seem to delight in trampling the rights of smokers. Such is the talk going around Hong Kong, amid swirling rumors that another whopping tobacco tax increase will be announced next week in the 2014–2015 Hong Kong Budget.

When the government raised the price of a pack of cigarettes to HK$50 in 2011, York Chow Yat-ngok, the health secretary at the time, waited almost no time after the budget announcement to declare the tax increase was not about increasing government revenues, but about encouraging people to quit smoking — or discouraging them from taking it up in the first place.

Now, for 2014, the topic is back. The Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health (COSH) came out with a proposal earlier this month, calling on the government to increase the tax by 100 percent. That would make an ordinary pack of cigarettes about HK$84.

If that happens, cigarette prices in Hong Kong could become among the most expensive in the world, according to I Smoke Alliance, a local group which supports people’s “freedom” to smoke.

But in the meantime, Hong Kong might become the first developed jurisdiction in the world where the percentage of smokers among the entire population is down in single digits — and it could come within two years, the COSH declares.

There were 707,000 smokers in Hong Kong in 2012 — accounting for 10.7 percent of the city’s population.

After the government increased the tobacco tax by 50 percent in 2009, the Smoking Cessation Hotline (1833 183) organized by the Tobacco Control Office tallied 15,500 calls from the smokers seeking to quit. In 2008, there were only 4,300 calls.

The 41.5 percent tax increase assessed in 2011 was followed by another abrupt increase — rising to 20,571 calls for help that year. Over the past two years, the hotline received about 13,000 calls a year.

A University of Hong Kong (HKU) survey, between March and July of last year, revealed that of 800 smokers interviewed, one third said higher tobacco taxes increased their motivation to quit smoking. One third said they smoked less after the tax increase.

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