Hong Kong moves to ban smoking for those born in or after 2009

November 17, 2022 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Following New Zealand, Hong Kong is moving to ban the sale of tobacco to those born after a certain date and take a big step toward a “smoke-free Hong Kong”.

Lo Chung-mau, Secretary for Health, said last week that the government was considering a lifetime ban on anyone born in or after 2009 from buying smoking products.

In July, the New Zealand government voted through the first draft of a bill, expected to take effect on January 1 2023, to make it illegal for those born after 2009 to buy tobacco. The laws also reduce the nicotine in cigarettes and allow them to be sold only in specialty tobacco stores and not in corner stores and supermarkets.

It is the first country to introduce such sweeping restrictions and its example is being closed watched by governments around the world.

"For decades, manufacturers have solidified their market share by making their products more and more addictive and deadly. It's disgusting," said New Zealand Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall. "A person who is aged 14 years old when the law comes into effect will never legally obtain cigarettes," she said, in announcing the plans in December 2021.

Opponents of the law in New Zealand say that it would push the tobacco industry into the criminal underground.

The rationale for the proposal is that the frontal lobe of young brains, where long-term mature decisions are made, are not fully developed until about the age of 23. This is borne out by the average age around the world of taking up smoking is under 20. “So if we can prevent people from starting smoking until they're 23 or 24, then they're most unlikely to start” said Dr Judith Mackay of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control, based in Hong Kong.

Speaking at an event organized by Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health (COSH) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of tobacco control in Hong Kong on November 8, Secretary Lo said that, with the effective policy implementation over the last four decades, smoking prevalence has declined from 23 per cent in the 1980s to 9.5 per cent now. The government target is 7.8 per cent by 2025.

“The long-term goal of the tobacco control policies is to eliminate smoking hazards in order to avoid tobacco epidemic among the next generation,” he said. “The government has planned to conduct public consultation with regard to tobacco control strategy and would be eager to listen to people from all walks of life.”

Speaking at the reception, Henry Tong Sau-chai, COSH chairman, said the total ban on alternative smoking products that came into effect on 30 April 2022 could effectively prevent the hazards of alternative tobacco products as a possible gateway into cigarette smoking among children and youth. “We hoped that the Government can formulate comprehensive policy on tobacco control in response to public demands concerning zero-smoking hazard environment.”

Tong said he had proposed that the government double the tobacco tax to encourage smokers to give up. An average packet of cigarettes costs HK$60, including HK$38 of tobacco tax. Tong’s proposal would increase the price to about HK$100 a packet.

“The government should also consider mandating plain packaging for cigarettes with full health warnings and ban shops from displaying tobacco products in plain sight,” he said. Another proposal is to raise the legal age to buy cigarettes from the current 18 to 21, the level in Singapore and the United States.

“The government should establish a 10-metre no-smoking buffer zone to prevent second-hand smoke from entering facilities like hospitals and school. We also hope for footbridges and outdoor restaurants seats to be included as statutory no-smoking areas in the future,” he said.

Peter Shiu Ka-fai of the pro-business Liberal Party said that people should still have choice. “The public knows that smoking is harmful. Singing karaoke until dawn and drinking too much are also harmful. The government can protect people’s health but should not plan everything in their life.”

Dr Judith Mackay, who also spoke at the COSH seminar on obstacles to tobacco control, said the most formidable obstacle to reducing tobacco use was the lobbying and tactics of the tobacco industry and its allies.

She said that, while Hong Kong could be proud of reducing smoking prevalence into single figures -- which very few countries have achieved -- it still translates into hundreds of thousands of smokers, and thousands of deaths annually. “It is ridiculous beyond belief to compare the dangers of smoking with those of karaoke – karaoke does not kill up to two thirds of people who sing.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.