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Multi-pronged Tobacco Control Measures Proven Effective Tobacco Tax Rise and Stringent Enforcement against Illicit Cigarettes Encourage Smoking Cessation
A recent report claimed that illicit cigarettes proliferated in Hong Kong due to the tobacco tax increases introduced in Hong Kong in 2009 and 2011 and the strength of enforcement of the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department against cigarette smuggling. Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health (COSH) expressed reservations on the methodology and results of this tobacco industry-funded report.

Ms Lisa LAU, Chairman of COSH reiterated, “The primary and ultimate goal of increasing tobacco tax is to encourage smokers to kick the habit which is proven to be effective in Hong Kong. Nearly one fifth of successful quitters gave up smoking on their own accord because tobacco products are too expensive. There is no causal link between tobacco tax rise and proliferation of illegal cigarettes.” Ms Lau said, the tobacco industry and its allies always express strong opposition against tobacco tax increase under the pretext that it will lead to a surge in cigarette smuggling activities. But such statement stands without acceptable reasoning and evidence support.

As recommended by WHO, the most effective measure against smuggling is tight control and aggressive enforcement. COSH is glad to see the efficacy of the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department’s stringent enforcement against illicit cigarette activities on all fronts. Following the success of the one-month operation which cracked down 18 illicit cigarette storage points last month, the Customs smashed six more illicit cigarette storage points in the one-week special operation and successfully combatted at the source on Saturday, 12 October 2013 in which a cross-boundary vehicle used for conveying illicit cigarettes was seized. About 3.3 million sticks of illicit cigarettes were seized, the total market value of the haul was about HK$8.1 million. According to the Customs, a total of 65 million sticks of illicit cigarettes for local market were seized in the first nine months this year, representing an increase of more than 30% when compared to the same period last year. These operations and figures showed the effectiveness of enforcement strategy and determination of the Customs against illicit cigarette activities to protect government revenue and public health.

Whenever there is price difference with other regions, not limited to cigarette products, it is lucrative for smuggling. It explains why cigarette smuggling is also found in countries with low tobacco tax, like Malaysia (tax accounts 53.7% of retail price) and Vietnam (tax accounts 41.59% of retail price). It is related to the strength of law enforcement, coordination of tracking system and effectiveness of penalty. The most effective way to tackle the problem of cigarette smuggling at the root is to strengthen law enforcement and publicity, and educate the public on the illegitimacy of illicit cigarettes.

Increase in tobacco tax is one of the proven effective measures in tobacco control. According to the World Bank, every 10% increase in the price of a packet of cigarettes would result in a 4% decrease in tobacco consumption in high-income regions like Hong Kong. Tobacco tax in Hong Kong is accounted for only 65% to 68% of the cigarette retail price, which is below the standard suggested by WHO (at least 70%). Comparing to other Asia-pacific countries, like Singapore, Thailand and New Zealand, and the EU countries, whose tobacco tax is over 70%, tobacco tax in Hong Kong is lenient and cigarette price is relatively cheap. There is room for tobacco tax increment in Hong Kong.

Each year, smoking causes nearly 6,000 deaths in Hong Kong and additional 1,324 non-smokers died from secondhand smoke, as well as HK$5.3 billion economic loss. To save lives, the Government should implement a progressive and long-term tobacco tax increment policy and strengthen the smoking cessation services to help smokers quit smoking and protect public health.

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