Pricing cigarettes out can worsen problems

Updated: 2016-06-13 07:14

By Jon Lowe(HK Edition)

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In a recent piece on this page entitled "Make Hong Kong a smoking-free territory to improve people's health", the negative aspects of smoking were pointed out. The author cited New Zealand's plan to become a smoker-free country by 2025 through successive hefty increases in cigarettes taxes as a winning formula for combating smoking, especially among low-paid workers. "If cigarettes became as financially unreachable as buying caviar or vintage champagne for these people, the incidence of smoking would surely greatly decline," the author reasoned.

Although pricing cigarettes out of the majority market cannot actually be called prohibition, it shares many of its traits in that it represents an attempt by government to eliminate a particular "vice" by heavy-handed means - in this case making it prohibitively expensive by attacking the demand rather than the supply of cigarettes. However, I think this kind of "virtual prohibition" would have more or less the same results as regular prohibition regarding cigarettes - and stopping people from smoking would not be among them.

The first result would be an increase in contraband cigarettes - both of real brands smuggled from overseas that bypass government levies, and of fake brands produced illegally. Smuggling operations have had some surprisingly big backers: There is plenty of evidence that big brands have actively encouraged or participated in smuggling their products in their ongoing efforts to keep people hooked and to ensnare new smokers. But, it is the prospect of more counterfeit cigarettes that should really concern health authorities. These are knocked together in dodgy factories with little or no oversight or quality control, and usually contain much higher levels of harmful substances. Because the makers usually mimic the branding and packaging of established products, people do not necessarily know that they are smoking super-harmful cigarettes.

Cigarette addiction is a powerful vice, and in a situation of virtual prohibition, organized crime would undoubtedly move in to fill the demand. It hardly needs stating that prohibition in the US for alcohol consumption from 1920 to 1933 caused various criminal entities to grow from low-level street gangs to mafia organizations that corrupted every level of American life, from the justice system to politics and organized labor, as well as allowing them to muscle in on the entertainment business, gambling, prostitution and, of course, the narcotics trade. Enacting virtual prohibition on cigarettes would simply hand criminals the franchise to one of the most widespread and persistent of human vices - the demand for which, despite the wishful thinking of health experts and anti-smoking campaigners, is not likely to be stubbed out any time soon.

Moreover, in a free society where many people live in close proximity, there has to be an agreed balance between personal liberty and respect for the quality of life of others. If, as an amateur drummer, I want to practice at 6 pm, so long as I do not bash the drums like a maniac, it is fine legally and morally. But, after 11 pm, my personal choice to practice drums is trumped by other people's right to go to sleep. Other rules include not eating on public transport and cleaning up after a pet dog fouls the sidewalk, both to minimize mess and odor. I think that going outside a restaurant or bar to smoke maintains this balance, displaying the requisite consideration while minimizing the amount of smoke likely to afflict non-smokers.

The Hong Kong government's smoking legislation is admirable because it leaves room for stakeholders to negotiate these tricky spaces between personal liberty and others' rights. Smoking is banned pretty much everywhere in public, including all indoor areas (except private homes) and many outdoor spaces, such as parks and beaches. There is some controversy over the fact that Hong Kong does not place the onus on licensees of liquor-licensed premises to enforce smoking bans. In practice, it gives rise to a few bars - mostly in Tsim Sha Tsui - where the consensus is that smoking is not anti-social (although people will still be fined by police officers if caught doing so). While this state of affairs will always rankle with zealous anti-smokers, I think most people are content to live with it or avoid those very few bars or dodgy dives where the smokers have defiantly staked a claim. Let's just say, it adds a little bit of lawless glamour to our incredibly safe city!

When you consider the fact that the overall daily smoking rate in Hong Kong has declined from over 23 percent in the early 1980s to just 10.5 percent in 2015, it's evident that the government's steady approach to combating smoking without invoking draconian measures has succeeded in curbing the habit, while having avoided alienating smokers or creating social tension. More importantly, we should be thankful we do not live in a patronizing "nanny state" that obsesses over trying to control our all-too-human desires.

The author is a seasoned journalist.

(HK Edition 06/13/2016 page9)