Smoking (Public Health) (Amendment) Bill 2019 (2021/10/21)

Smoking (Public Health) (Amendment) Bill 2019 (2021/10/21)

MR YIU SI-WING (in Cantonese):

President, Hong Kong can be said to be most proactive in banning smoking. Since the enactment of the Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance in 1982, tobacco control has been promoted progressively through price increases, education, and publicity campaigns for smoking cessation, in order to encourage the public to refuse smoking. Since the early 1980s, the smoking rate in Hong Kong has gradually dropped from about 23% to about 10% in 2019, making us one of the places with the lowest smoking rate in the world. This is proof that the anti-smoking efforts made over the years have achieved certain results.


The objective of the Government in introducing these legislative amendments is to propose a full ban on novel tobacco products in Hong Kong, including electronic cigarettes ("e-cigarettes") and heated tobacco products ("HTPs"). The Bill is intended to protect public health and prevent young people from developing the habit of smoking because of novel tobacco products, which will otherwise add to the burden on the healthcare system. The Bill is well-intentioned and warrants support. But after weighing the pros and cons, coupled with the fact that during the scrutiny of the Bill, the Government, in its response to questions raised by members, were unable to address my concerns and those of the industry, I am, therefore, still considering it, and further explanation by the Government is required mainly for the several points as follows:


First, there is insufficient scientific data to justify the Government's blanket ban on HTPs in a broad-brush manner. The Government considers that HTPs and e-cigarettes have complex composition and are more hazardous to health than conventional cigarettes, and the fancy packaging and misleading advertising will attract young people to consume alternative smoking products. Given that e-cigarettes and conventional cigarettes can have completely different ingredients, which may give rise to loopholes in regulation, I accept this explanation. However, for HTPs which use an alternative method for heating conventional tobacco, it stands to reason that they can do similar harm as smoking conventional cigarettes and regulation is hence easier. But HTPs have relatively less impact on the surrounding air and environment, and if the Government allows conventional cigarettes to continue to be sold in the market, why does it not allow the existence of HTPs with similar ingredients as conventional cigarettes? Although the Government said that HTPs release different harmful substances at different temperatures to which they are heated, there are statistics showing that the nicotine content of HTPs is lower than that of conventional cigarettes and this will help conventional cigarette smokers reduce their dependence on conventional cigarettes. According to a street survey conducted by a non-governmental organization, close to 99% of HTPs users said that they used to smoke conventional cigarettes and switched to HTPs only in recent years, and that they would switch back to conventional cigarettes in the event of a full ban on HTPs. Therefore, the ban will not be of any help to smokers in quitting smoking. On the contrary, it may do a lot more harm to the health of smokers who switched back to conventional cigarettes. From this we can see that HTPs as an alternative to conventional cigarettes have a certain role to play and can, to a certain extent, reduce smokers' dependence on conventional cigarettes.


During the deliberations of the Bills Committee, the Government had provided information on FDA's regulatory regime for tobacco products. FDA adopts the same regulatory approach for all tobacco products. In other words, both conventional cigarettes and HTPs must apply for permission for sales individually and submit a full report on all health risk investigations of the products to ensure that tobacco products comply with the health standards. This regulatory regime allows products meeting the requirements to enter the market, and permission is granted with the support of rigorous scientific arguments. If the Government has in place a similar regime, it can reduce the harm on smokers in smoking conventional cigarettes or HTPs and also mitigate the health hazards on smokers. It is unnecessary to ban HTPs across the board.


The second point is how to prevent travellers from being affected. At present, although HTPs and e-cigarettes are banned in many countries, the sale of HTPs is still allowed in 66 countries and regions, including the Mainland. Under the Smoking (Public Health) (Amendment) Bill 2019 ("the Bill"), incoming travellers who bring HTPs into Hong Kong commit an offence and are liable to a maximum fine of $50,000 and imprisonment for up to six months. In the past when launching anti-smoking measures, the Government would give consideration to how incoming travellers would be affected and adopt a flexible approach. For instance, in 2010 when implementing the measure of allowing only 19 cigarettes to be brought into Hong Kong, even if travellers had brought in more cigarettes, they could choose to dispose of the surplus ones or pay a tax for them. This was more readily acceptable to the travellers as the value of cigarettes is comparatively low and travellers would not suffer too much a loss. But when it comes to prohibiting travellers from bringing HTPs into Hong Kong, the resentment caused among them will be different because the accessories of HTPs are usually more expensive, generally ranging from a few hundred to even a thousand dollars. Arriving travellers who do not want to discard of them may be subject to penalty and certainly they will not be happy. Since HTPs are not banned in many countries worldwide―some 60 countries as I mentioned earlier―travellers may easily bring them into Hong Kong inadvertently and commit an offence.


Originally, they are delighted in coming to Hong Kong for sightseeing, and it has never occurred to them that once they entered the territory, they will, in minor cases, lose money and in serious cases, breach the law unknowingly and be punished quite heavily. They will, of course, even feel bad and as a result, the desire of tourists to revisit Hong Kong will be dampened. This is why some organizations in the travel industry have recently raised objections.


Third, during this amendment exercise, I have not seen the Government making plans on a roadmap for banning smoking in the future. For the sake of the public, the Government should not be complacent with the present situation and should draw up a roadmap for the arrangements for imposing a smoking ban to further reduce the number of smokers in Hong Kong. For example, Finland already provided a roadmap in 2014 with the objective of reducing the percentage of smokers aged 15 to 64 from 16% in 2013 to less than 2% in 2040. Measures proposed by the Finnish Government include standardizing the packaging of tobacco products, increasing the tax on tobacco regularly, classifying e-cigarettes containing nicotine as pharmaceutical products, and strengthening support for smokers who want to quit smoking. Under the roadmap, the relevant government departments are responsible for regularly reviewing the effectiveness of the measures and formulating relevant policies to achieve the objective of reducing the number of smokers.


Comparing to Hong Kong, it has been 10 years after the tobacco duty was increased in 2011 and there has been no significant increase in the duty rate since then. The current tobacco duty rate, which is about 63% of the price, is already lower than the 75% recommended by the World Health Organization. I have suggested before that the Government, in regulating HTPs, can consider prohibiting young people under 21 from buying and smoking them but regrettably my proposal was not accepted. So, without a roadmap for banning smoking, the Government will have no pressure to review the policy regularly and such being the case, it will be difficult for Hong Kong to achieve the objective of becoming a smoke-free city or a city with low smoking prevalence.


President, regarding these legislative amendments, Mr Frankie YICK proposes to provide exemption for alternative smoking products imported to Hong Kong by vehicles for re-export and this, I think, is reasonable. The Mainland is the birthplace of e-cigarettes and the largest exporter in the world. Over half of the alternative smoking products are exported from the Mainland, with Baoan District in Shenzhen being one of the major producers. Statistics show that in 2020, the global sales of novel tobacco products, including HTPs and e-cigarettes, reached US$42.4 billion. From this we can see that the quantity and value of alternative smoking products manufactured in and exported from Shenzhen are huge. Hong Kong is a major entreport for Mainland goods which account for as much as 59% of Hong Kong's transhipment cargoes. Therefore, we can infer that the amount of alternative smoking products transported from Shenzhen by land to Hong Kong for re-export overseas should be considerable, and this will directly contribute to the logistics industry and economy of Hong Kong. Besides, the Customs and Excise Department all along has in place a stringent system for monitoring transhipment cargoes, effectively plugging the loopholes for smuggling. The authorities should not be over-worried. I will, therefore, support Mr Frankie YICK's amendment.


President, I so submit.