“Disband TACO”: addressing structural issues in tobacco control and cancer prevention

Cigarette butts in a street ashtray, Hong Kong

In a written submission to the Hong Kong government’s Subcommittee on Issues Relating to the Support for Cancer Patients, Blue Skies China proposes disbanding Hong Kong’s ineffective Tobacco and Alcohol Control Office (TACO) and replacing it with a combination of police enforcement and a knowledge-based research centre.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Hong Kong particularly among men; and although the city has a low overall smoking prevalence, over 26% of men aged 40-49 are daily cigarette smokers.

“Treating cigarette smoking more effectively should be a priority in the fight against cancer,” said James Ockenden, director of Blue Skies China. “But Hong Kong’s combustible tobacco laws are outdated, our enforcement of those laws ineffective.”

Enforcement of tobacco laws is under the sole jurisdiction of TACO*. Hong Kong’s Ombudsman first called out TACO’s ineffectiveness in February 2018 in a scathing report pointing to many structural inefficiencies and failure: however, since then there is little evidence TACO has done anything to upgrade its performance.

A school bus, showing the driver at the wheel smoking a cigarette

Illegal smoking is rife in Hong Kong, even on school buses.

“This poorly administered body stands in the way of Hong Kong’s tobacco control laws. It’s time to devolve its powers to the police,” said Ockenden. “The police have the training, the authority and the presence to get the job done properly.

With enforcement powers given to the police, a new tobacco knowledge centre replacing TACO could concentrate on research and development into tobacco control strategies and smoker support.

Blue Skies China also recommends the government listen to the city’s medical professionals in developing a more aggressive anti-tobacco control policy, including:

  • raising cigarette tax (which has been frozen for the fourth consecutive year) in line with World Health Organization guidelines;
  • raising the minimum age of tobacco purchase to 21;
  • adopting plain packaging laws;
  • making venue owners (including government venue owners) responsible for illegal smoking on their premises;
  • reviewing non-nicotine quitting methods (such as Allen Carr’s EasyWay)for government support; and
  • banning smoking in commercial vehicles.

The recommendations come as the government asked interested parties to give views on the overall strategy for the prevention and treatment of cancer. Blue Skies China’s full submission can be found here: Cancer prevention.

* note, the Food and Environmental Health Department (FEHD) and Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) also have tobacco enforcement powers on their premises, however the two departments have each made only around a dozen prosecutions annually in the last five years, and LCSD recently admitted it had not even filed the correct paperwork to enable it to prosecute smoking offences in hundreds of parks and leisure grounds across Hong Kong.

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