At a meeting of the health services committee of the Legislative Council on May 18, the administration proposed three new measures on tobacco control.
These include changing the prescribed form of health warning and indication of tar and nicotine levels on the cigarette packet, designating bus interchange facilities located at the tunnel portal areas as statutory non-smoking areas, and imposing regulations on electronic cigarettes.
Among the new measures, the proposals that the size of the graphic health warning sign that covers the cigarette packet should be increased from the current 50 percent to 85 percent of the total surface area of the packet and that the variety of the health warning signs should be increased from 6 to 12 kinds have become a cause for concern for the tobacco industry.
It is reported that the tobacco industry will be given a grace period of six months to comply with the new packaging rules. But representatives of the sector said the government has never consulted them about the new measures, nor has it notified them of the details of the new regulations.
In fact, the new measures would already have been gazetted in June had it not been for the objection raised by some members of the health services panel, who demanded greater consultation over the new policies with all the stakeholders.
Then at the request of the panel, a special meeting was held on July 6, during which representatives of the tobacco industry were present and gave their views.
While it remains open to question whether increasing the size of the graphic health warning sign on the cigarette packet can really reduce the number of smokers, at that meeting representatives of the industry said the tobacco tax hikes in recent years have given rise to smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes and created incentives for black market sales, which have already reached epidemic proportions in the community.
They also said if the size of the graphic health warning sign was increased to 85 percent of the total surface area of the cigarette packet, manufacturers would be unable to put on anti-counterfeit labels on the packet, making it almost impossible for consumers to tell whether what they bought is the genuine product.
Although various sectors of our society have already reached a consensus on smoking ban in public places, and the majority of the public are well aware of the potential health risks of smoking, I believe the government should still follow due process and fully consult the industry, listen to their views and find out their difficulties in complying with the new measures in order to ensure the feasibility of the new regulations.
Moreover, the administration has yet to provide any conclusive research evidence that can convince members of the panel as well as the tobacco industry that increasing the size of the graphic health warning sign on the cigarette packet can really put off smokers and encourage them to quit smoking.
After all, there are only three countries in the world where tobacco manufacturers are legally required to cover 85 percent of the cigarette packet with graphic health warnings.
Whenever the government introduces new policy initiatives, we hope that the administration can always consult all the stakeholders including the industry and our citizens and listen to their views, based on which officials can then strike a balance among the different interests and concerns of the various stakeholders and come up with a final proposal that is acceptable to all parties.
As a member of the health services community, I am a steadfast supporter of smoking bans. However, the fact that I am against smoking doesn’t mean I will turn a blind eye to any government attempt to skip standard procedures in the course of policy formulation, because I believe the government is always under the obligation to listen to the views of stakeholders before any new policy is introduced.
Since the new measures proposed by the administration are not a matter of great urgency, nor will they affect tax revenues, I don’t see any reason why the government should enforce the controversial regulations so hastily despite serious doubts among major stakeholders.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 13.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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