Hong Kong could bump up tobacco tax again in bid to further cut smoking rate, health chief reveals

Hong Kong authorities are considering increasing the duty on tobacco again in a bid to further push down the smoking rate, the health minister has revealed.

But Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau stopped short of confirming whether such a measure would be included in Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po’s budget next month, following a rise in tobacco tax in February last year.

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“Data from the World Health Organization and the global experience proves that an increase in tobacco tax is one of the most effective methods [to reduce smoking]. We will definitely consider it,” Lo told the Post in a wide-ranging interview.

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The city last year raised tobacco duty by 60 HK cents per cigarette, with smokers having to pay HK$12 more for a pack of 20. A pack now costs about HK$78.

Lo Chung-mau says the government is analysing data from a consultation on tobacco controls. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Lo said the move was effective in encouraging people to quit smoking, as the number of inquiries to the government’s smoking cessation hotline jumped three- to fourfold after the tax was increased last year.

Tobacco duty currently accounts for about 64 per cent of the retail price of cigarettes, below the 75 per cent recommended by the WHO.

The smoking rate is currently 9.5 per cent, leaving the city with nearly 600,000 daily smokers. Authorities hope to cut the figure to 7.8 per cent by next year.

The government last year launched a public consultation on its tobacco control plans covering four anti-smoking strategies: regulating supply and suppressing demand; banning promotion and reducing attractiveness; expanding non-smoking areas and mitigating harm; and enhancing education and supporting those quitting the habit.

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Lo said the government was analysing data from the consultation, and aimed to deliver strategies for the short and long term.

Another long-term government goal is to develop Hong Kong’s own drug regulatory system, as revealed in the chief executive’s policy address in October.

Lo said a preparatory office for the Hong Kong Centre for Medical Products Regulation (CMPR) would be established in the first half of this year.

The office will study the potential restructuring and strengthening of existing regulatory regimes, and help to set up the centre, crucial to the city’s own drug approval mechanism.

Lo said the CMPR would be on a par with the Centre for Health Protection.

Aside from handling drug regulatory affairs, the new centre would also be responsible for controls on medical devices and traditional Chinese medicine, Lo added.

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Since November, the government has operated a “1+” drug registration mechanism. Under the streamlined system, applications for registration of drugs for life-threatening or rare diseases that are supported with local clinical data are required to submit approval from one reference drug regulatory authority, rather than two.

Lo said authorities had received more than 100 inquiries from pharmaceutical firms regarding the mechanism. Two cancer drugs were approved under the new system last month.

The health secretary also acknowledged that it was difficult to recruit talent for the government’s ambitious plan to build its own drug approval system.

“The whole world is ‘grabbing talent’, especially professionals,” Lo said. “It is really not easy to establish the CMPR and recruit talent for the centre’s leadership and expert database.”

He said he hoped those recruited would exhibit professionalism and integrity, as drug regulatory systems often involved various interests, especially with pharmaceutical firms.

The government would also coordinate with the city’s two medical schools, their clinical trial centres and the Hospital Authority to offer manpower training in drug regulation.

A different kind of education? Hong Kong’s plans for a third medical school

Touching on a plan by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to set up the city’s third medical school, Lo said the government was “glad and excited” by any tertiary institution proposing such a move.

While the government would “actively consider” the plan, Lo said it would also be important to look into whether the city’s overall ecosystem – such as academics, students and teaching hospitals – could support a third medical school.

“We need to wait for HKUST’s whole plan and see whether it is feasible,” he said.

The University of Hong Kong and Chinese University admit 590 medical students each year. Lo said both faculties had indicated they would be able to train more.

He said an overall assessment would be needed to consider which plan, whether setting up the third medical school or ramping up existing faculties, would be the most ideal.

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