2017-07-09 HIA commentary on SCMP: Government’s efforts to curb smoking may need a rethink in Hong Kong

Government’s efforts to curb smoking may need a rethink in Hong Kong

The Hong Kong Tobacco Control Office has been working for over 16 years to combat tobacco use. In the wake of the World Health Organisation’s World No Tobacco Day on May 31, we must ask if our current efforts are enough to create a healthy tobacco-free city.

In 2015, there were 691,600 smokers in Hong Kong, 11.4 per cent of the population. Absolute numbers have increased over the past decade, as has our health risk from exposure to second- and third-hand smoke.

In line with the WHO’s “Tobacco – A threat to development” campaign, studies in Hong Kong have shown huge losses of capital and productivity from smoking-related deaths and work absence. Tobacco is also a known driver of poverty, with Oxfam highlighting increasing numbers of poor households. This is important when you consider that the rich earn 29 times more than Hong Kong’s poor.

A ban on smoking in all indoor public places, with a

HK$1,500 fine, has been in place in Hong Kong since 2009. More recently, the government announced there would be legislation to increase the number and size of health warning labels on cigarette packs. But will this be sufficient to tackle our smoking vice?

Surveys in Hong Kong show that more than 60 per cent of daily smokers have never tried to and do not plan to quit. Further, 79 per cent of daily smokers are economically active, so they are part of a working population with some of the longest hours in the world. The city also has another world record, with the least affordable housing. Is there a link between these statistics and the fact that so many citizens cannot break the habit? Are larger health-hazard labels enough to target these underlying issues?

Likewise, 96.8 per cent of daily smokers started between the ages of 10 and 29. And stress levels of Diploma of Secondary Education students have reached a three-year high. Is our education system encouraging our young people to smoke?

Despite the government’s clear commitment to creating a tobacco-free Hong Kong, it seems we are neglecting bigger pieces of the puzzle – pieces that go beyond traditional perceptions of smoking as a health hazard, and the capacity of the medical and health professionals to tackle this alone.

We must ask how our social environment is influencing these habits, and how this affects our vision of a tobacco-free Hong Kong.

Dr Fan Ning, Health in Action