Finance chiefs must learn to use fiscal measures to improve Hong Kong’s public health, according to veteran anti-tobacco campaigner Professor Judith Mackay, speaking to Blue Skies China on the sidelines of a Council on Smoking and Health (COSH) conference “Towards a Tobacco Endgame in Hong Kong” in Hong Kong yesterday.
According to Mackay, who is Director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control and was identified by the tobacco industry as “one of the three most dangerous people in the world”, the domains of finance and health are too far apart in Hong Kong.
“Tobacco tax is not under the jurisdiction of the health people and the finance people don’t understand that you can use tax for public health,” she said. “Our job is to try to persuade them that a fiscal measure is absolutely the best thing if you want to bring smoking rates down.”
Tobacco tax has not been raised for three years in Hong Kong and according to Mackay it must be a priority for the government in the next budget. “If you want to bring smoking rates down, it’s tax tax tax, first, second, third, before you do anything else,” she said. “We need to get the tax back to where it was in the 1990s, get it back so [cigarettes] are unaffordable to children, it’s as simple as that,” she said.
According to COSH, a rise of 100% would help bring Hong Kong’s policy in line with other developed nations. “Currently, cigarette price of the major brands in Hong Kong is about HK$57 per pack, the tobacco tax is only about 67% of the retail price, which is lower than the 75% recommended by WHO,” said COSH in a statement. “The retail price is also low when compared to other developed regions such as Australia (about HK$154), New Zealand (about HK$133), the United Kingdom (about HK$94), Canada (about HK$78) and Singapore (about HK$75).”
Mackay called on the media to help educate government ministers in time for the 2018 budget. “I think the media have a responsibility to get across this message, that a fiscal measure is the best thing in Hong Kong to save lives, to bring the rates down and save lives. I’ve been at meetings where there’s been ten experts on stage and they were each asked, ‘if you could do just one thing to do in tobacco control, what would it be?’, every single one of them said one word and that word was ‘tax’. It’s tax tax tax tax tax, everybody knows that. We just have got to persuade people in a very different field, in the field of finance, that this is so.”
One possible reason for stalled tobacco tax policy worldwide, according to visiting expert Dr Hana Ross, Professor of the School of Economics, University of Cape Town, South Africa, was tobacco company interference. “The reason why many countries are not using tax to their advantage is because of extreme lobbying from the side of the tobacco industry… that’s the main obstacle,” she told the conference.
In response, Mackay said the problem of interference was well known in Hong Kong, “We’ve seen delegations and representatives from the tobacco industry come to Hong Kong and lobby the government, and this is not the health people, it’s the financial people, lobbying them with the three arguments: that tax increases will lose the government money – not true; that tax increases will lead to illicit trade – basically not true; and that tax increases are ineffective and hard on the poor people – and again, not true. They come with disinformation and they lobby the governments very hard, working with the media to put media articles out along those three lines, particularly along illicit trade.”
When asked if the government supported a rise in tax for the 2018 budget, Professor Sophia Chan, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Food and Health, hedged. “The Government’s tobacco control measures and policies include not only taxation, but also legislation, enforcement, education as well as smoking cessation. We will use this multi-pronged approach in a progressive manner,” she said.