The government is proposing stiff penalties to ban the manufacture and sale of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, which are becoming increasingly popular in Hong Kong.
Critics immediately opposed the move, saying it would be unfair to impose regulations on e-cigarettes while allowing people to freely smoke regular cigarettes.
The measure will also drive smokers to the more harmful habit of tobacco smoking and encourage the illegal importation and sale of e-cigarettes, they said.
The Food and Health Bureau is set to introduce the Smoking (Public Health) (Amendment) Bill 2019 to the Legislative Council, which will ban the importation, manufacture, sale, distribution and advertisement of e-cigarettes and alternative smoking products in the city, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported.
Violators may face a fine of up to HK$50,000 and six months imprisonment, although users of e-cigarettes will not be subject to any punishment.
The ban was unveiled by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor during her policy address in October last year.
The government plans to have the amendment bill gazetted on Friday before tabling it in Legco next Wednesday for first and second reading.
The measure is expected to come into effect six months after it is passed and gazetted.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Deputy Secretary for Food and Health (Health) Amy Yuen Wai-yin said the proposed amendment to the law is not aimed at criminalizing smoking behavior but at banning alternative smoking products from circulating in the market.
The objective is to prevent young people who are easily attracted to novel stuff from cultivating the habit of using e-cigarettes.
Yuen dismissed criticism that it would be unfair to ban e-cigarettes while allowing traditional tobacco.
She said the two should not be compared as the harmful effects of tobacco are widely known since it has been in existence for a very long time, while e-cigarettes are new with most users being young people.
The health official said authorities will adopt a lenient approach in handling violations during the first three months after the measure takes effect.
Inbound passengers carrying e-cigarettes and other alternative smoking products will not be punished during the period as long as they, before clearance, voluntarily put them in disposal boxes at checkpoints or hand them over during inspection.
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee wrote in her offical blog post that public discussion of the legislative measure is expected, but the government has to preventive action in its smoking control efforts.
The government aims to lower smoking prevalence in the local population to 7.8 percent by 2025 from 10 percent at present.
Each year, over the past seven years, Hong Kong imported between 170 million and 260 million e-cigarettes worth between HK$7.4 billion and HK$11 billion, according to data from the Census and Statistics Department.
Opposing the proposed legislation, wholesale and retail sector lawmaker Peter Shiu Ka-fai said the measure not only treats e-cigarette retailers unfairly but also impairs free market operations in Hong Kong.
The Coalition on Tobacco Affairs criticized the government for making its decision without first consulting the public extensively and for ignoring the fact that some countries have legalized e-cigarettes.
Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki, who is favor of the amendment, said what worries him is that the importation and sale of e-cigarettes through illegal channels may increase in the future since the bill does not ban their use.
He also said the Tobacco and Alcohol Control Office under the Department of Health may not have sufficient manpower to cope with the issue.
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