Lifestyle choices go up in smoke with tax rises

Peter Wong- South China Morning Post (EDT, EDT11, 31/01/2011)

A discouraging government report released recently says that the number of daily smokers in Hong Kong has increased marginally, while the number of legitimate cigarette sales has gone down. This suggests that, regardless of the tax on tobacco, the government’s current smoking policy isn’t working.


Anti-smoking groups suggest that, if the government were to raise the tax, from 62 to 75 per cent, it would get people to stop smoking. The same argument has been used repeatedly for decades. Yet, with smokers still smoking, we hear that the tax is not high enough. Are we fighting a self-defeating battle?

The hope of anti-smoking groups that people will quit with greater costs ignores the fact that people can turn to illicit cigarettes. It was clear that the 2009-10 tax increase didn’t have the intended effect. During that period, heavy smokers cut the number of cigarettes they smoked, but the number of smokers didn’t decrease overall.

Taxing away an addiction won’t work, but education does. A classic anti-smoking commercial more than 20 years ago by actor Yul Brynner helped countless smokers around the world quit voluntarily.

So, why have anti-smoking groups abandoned the successful model of education, which aids smokers to quit voluntarily, and are instead lobbying the government to exercise its coercive power?

If the tobacco control policy continues in its current direction, one can anticipate ultimately a ban on the import of tobacco products, together with the indoor bans and limitations on smoking areas.

However, if the tobacco tax increases and smoking bans are borne out of public health concerns, it begs the question of whether, for example, the government would then be justified in also taxing our McDonald’s order because of rising rates of obesity.

Should the popular McDonald’s Monopoly games also be outlawed, as cigarette advertising is, since many claim that McDonald’s advertises unhealthy, fatty foods? Is this too far-fetched? Don’t forget that Happy Meal toys are banned in San Francisco.

If we go so far as to target smokers and the areas where they smoke, it is not very different from encroaching on an individual’s lifestyle.

Most of us would think it silly if the government outlawed eating hamburgers while at a bus terminus, because watching someone eat one may entice you to buy one, too. In terms of affecting others, is second-hand smoke more toxic than fumes from vehicle exhausts, chemical plants, or power stations? Do we have to ban all these?

In any civil society, most people respect others’ lifestyles, even if they choose to smoke. There is no legitimate argument to stop them if they do not affect others.

It is possible to create an environment for smokers and non-smokers, while protecting each group’s rights. The quickest and fairest fix is to allow non-smokers their right to avoid unpleasant smoke, and to allow smokers the right to smoke as long as they are not affecting others.

Smoking areas could easily be created in any public or private area. Our government should issue licences saying that restaurants and bars can serve smokers if they wish, and others can choose to provide a smoke-free environment, based entirely on what customers want.

The next time I am eating a hamburger, I don’t want to imagine being taxed at 75 per cent, as may be the case for smokers. People often step over the line when trying to help people, and the smoking policy exhibits such behaviour from the government.

There is space for smokers and non-smokers, both on the streets and indoors.

(Peter Wong is the executive director of The Lion Rock Institute, Hong Kong’s leading free market think tank. )

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