22 October 2019
Rather than just 'repressive' measures like tax hikes on cigarettes, Hong Kong needs to step up efforts on public health education, prevention and health checks to curb smoking, experts say. Photo: Reuters
Rather than just 'repressive' measures like tax hikes on cigarettes, Hong Kong needs to step up efforts on public health education, prevention and health checks to curb smoking, experts say. Photo: Reuters

Public education and health checks key to combating smoking

The Hong Kong University School of Public Health had earlier published the findings of a survey showing that 80 percent of the respondents were in favor of raising the tax on cigarettes next year.

The survey on tobacco tax, commissioned by the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health (COSH), also showed that the relative price of tobacco products sold in Hong Kong in 2015 was lower than that in 1991, and that the tax rate on a pack of cigarettes only stands at 67 percent, substantially below the 75 percent threshold recommended by World Health Organization (WHO).

The report suggested that the tax rate on cigarettes be raised to 100 percent.

I am not against raising tobacco tax in order to encourage more people to quit smoking, as the strategy has become a mainstream approach among governments worldwide.

However, I believe that apart from “paternalistic” measures such as legislating against smoking and enforcing the law, our government must also step up efforts at carrying out public education against smoking and promoting health checks, especially among the young people, who often underestimate the danger of smoking due to peer or even celebrity influence.

True, there is already an ongoing campaign targeting our schools to educate young people about the health risks of smoking, under which education and healthcare officials are visiting schools to give seminars on the subject.

However, the problem is, currently they are only giving around 100 talks a year, which are far from enough given the total number of schools in the city.

Amid this situation, I suggest that the government divert more resources into the campaign in the short run, and incorporate anti-smoking education into the standard school curriculum in the long run.

Meanwhile, the government should also include smoking cessation services in the primary health care system.

For example, as Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has proposed, in her policy address, to establish a community healthcare center in the Kwai Tsing district, the Health Department can use these facilities or other public clinics as a platform to identify chronic smokers and then refer them to smoking cessation therapies.

The Health Department can provide night-time and public holiday smoking cessation services for the working population so as to help more people quit smoking.

In the meantime, I was glad to learn that the department recently launched the “Pilot Public-Private Partnership Programme on Smoking Cessation”, under which the government will promote stop-smoking services and provide smoking cessation medications to smokers through private clinics and doctors as a supplement to the existing government-run smoking cessation services.

I believe the pilot program is definitely a step in the right direction. Authorities should review the program once it is complete and consider regularizing it.

As we all know, there is a strong correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, which is currently the most commonly diagnosed cancer among males and the third most common cancer among females in Hong Kong.

To address the pressing health issue, the government can start with health screening first and consider providing subsidized health checks for those who are at high risk of lung cancer so as to help them seek proper treatment as soon as possible and boost their chances of recovery.

In conclusion, the government should play the role of coordinator in reducing tobacco consumption in the city. And rather than just focusing on “repressive” measures, it should attach equal importance to public health education, prevention and health checks as well.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 14

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong