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Opening address by SFH at International Symposium on Management of Tobacco Dependence (English only)

Following is the opening address by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, at the opening session of International Symposium on Management of Tobacco Dependence today (February 12) (English only):

Dr Lam (Director of Health), Mr Patrick Ma (Chairman of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals), Ms Lisa Lau (Chairman of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health), Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

     It is my great pleasure to inaugurate the International Symposium on Management of Tobacco Dependence, organised by the Tobacco Control Office of our Department of Health.

     This symposium is the key event organised by the Tobacco Control Office this year to enhance international partnership and knowledge-sharing on the important subject of smoking cessation.  We are honoured by the presence of so many distinguished speakers from around the world.  I am sure that all of us with an interest in tobacco control, whether policy makers, academics, researchers, health professionals, or NGOs, will be able to benefit from the insight and advice to be shared at this forum.

Tobacco epidemic

     Everyone knows the serious threat that tobacco dependence poses to all of us.  But still, one billion people around the world are now addicted to cigarettes.  The nicotine in the cigarettes they consume is more addictive than heroin and causes a dependence syndrome.  What's more, studies have revealed that some cigarette companies have been increasing nicotine yields in cigarettes to induce greater addiction among smokers.

     The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that tobacco products kill over five million people every year and will eventually kill half of all regular smokers.  Over 100 million deaths worldwide were caused by tobacco in the last century, and the death toll will rise to one billion by the end of the 21st century if the current trend continues.  In the Western Pacific Region alone, cigarette smoking kills two people every minute.

     The world is facing a "tobacco toxin" epidemic.  No nation is spared, and no community exempted.  Wherever we are, we bear together the enormous health and social costs that the epidemic has inflicted on us.  As we are constantly facing the various heavy advertising propaganda from the tobacco industry, inertia would not be an option if we were to win this common battle against the tobacco epidemic.  We owe it to our communities and our next generation to act with speed and in solidarity.

Tobacco control strategies in Hong Kong

     In Hong Kong, smoking prevention and tobacco control have been priority objectives of our public health policy.  To achieve these, we have been adopting a combination of measures, including legislation, taxation, publicity, education, enforcement as well as smoking cessation services.  We have come a long way indeed since our first tobacco control law, the Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance, was enacted in 1982, when the smoking prevalence of the population aged 15 and above was over 23 per cent.  The latest survey indicated that the figure has dropped to about 12 per cent.  This would not have been possible without the conviction and hard work of many both within and outside the Government throughout the past decades, as well as the good practices of many international partners that we continue to learn from.

     Whatever progress we made in the past, we know only too well that more needs to be done.  We have therefore taken a few more important steps in the past few years.  This includes the setting up of the Tobacco Control Office in 2001 as the dedicated government agency to enforce our smoking-related legislation and implement the Administration's tobacco control policy.  Hong Kong has also further increased our collaboration with the international community since the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control applied to us in 2006.

     The most significant legislative measure we took in recent years was to tackle "second-hand smoking", with the amendment of our tobacco control law to extensively expand the smoking ban to all indoor public places including workplaces, schools, restaurants as well as certain outdoor areas such as beaches and parks beginning from 2007.

     We are encouraged by the community's positive response.  Surveys indicated that over 90 per cent of the public supported the smoking ban at workplaces, and the compliance rate at restaurants has reached over 95 percent.  According to the latest territory-wide Thematic Household Survey carried out by the Census and Statistics Department in 2008, close to 60 per cent of the respondents reported that they were less exposed to second-hand smoke in public places after the smoking ban was extended.  And although there were worries that the smoking ban might affect business in restaurants, statistics showed that Hong Kong restaurants trade takings actually went up by over 30 per cent in the third quarter of 2008 as compared with the same quarter of 2006 when the ban was not yet introduced.  This shows that the smoking ban has not had any negative impact on the catering trade.  Instead, many restaurants owners were pleasantly surprised by the increase in the number of their non-smoking customers, especially those who feel that they can now bring their elders and children to any restaurant without fear of exposing them to second-hand smoke.

     It is fair to say that the smoking ban has by and large achieved some positive results.  But there is still a long way to go before we can claim victory.

     Tobacco remains the major attributable factor to the top five leading causes of death in Hong Kong and claims some 6,900 lives in our community each year.  A study by local academics estimated that the annual value of medical plus productivity loss amounted to approximately HK$5 billion, among which HK$4 billion resulted from active smoking and HK$1 billion from passive smoking.

     And while the number if smokers have come down since the new smoking ban was expanded in 2007, total sale of duty-paid cigarette has not.  This is partly because our Customs officers are doing a good job in reducing the number of smuggled cigarettes.  But it also means that at least some smokers are consuming more sticks of cigarettes than before.  We clearly need to do more to help reduce tobacco dependence in our community.  From this year onwards, we shall be taking more measures towards this end.

Further tobacco control initiatives

     In a few months' time we will have a new fixed penalty system for smoking offences in place.  At present, the maximum penalty for illegal smoking is HK$5,000.  But the prosecution procedures are complicated and long drawn-out, and the fine meted out are usually too small to have any significant impact.  Under the new system, all offenders who smoke illegally will be fined a fixed penalty level of HK$1,500 and required to pay the fine within 21 days.  And in addition to the Tobacco Control Office, more Government departments managing public venues will also designate their staff to help enforce the new fixed penalty system.  This, we believe, should make enforcement much more effective and deter smokers from violating the smoking ban.

     Later this year, we will also further expand the smoking ban to public transport interchanges as well as establishments like bars, night clubs, massage establishments, and gambling premises which have been temporarily exempted from the ban.  The Tobacco Control Office will be mounting new rounds of public education campaigns on the new penalty system and the expanded smoking ban.  We believe that legislative measures accompanied by wide publicity are effective tools to reduce smoking and will convey a consistent message on the Government's commitment to tobacco control.  We shall continue to closely monitor the smoking prevalence and tobacco dependence data in Hong Kong and consider more stringent measures if the situation so warrants.

Smoking cessation services

     Smoking cessation is another essential aspect of our tobacco control strategy. Given that nicotine is addictive and induces dependence, it is unrealistic to expect smokers, especially those who have made a habit of smoking, to be able to give it up solely through will power without any outside help.  We have therefore devoted considerable resources to enhance smoking cessation services provided by the public sector, including the Department of Health and the Hospital Authority, as well as the Council on Smoking and Health.  These include the direct provision of medical treatment and counseling, as well as various publicity and education activities with smoking cessation as the main theme.  We note with interest that over 40 per cent of current daily smokers interviewed under the recent Thematic Household Survey indicated that they had attempted or wanted to quit smoking.  Our smoking prevalence figure would certainly drop impressively if all these smokers achieve their wish.  It is therefore in the interest of our entire community to give them the extra help and encouragement they need.

    Beginning from this month, smokers will be able to benefit from the new and improved cessation programme just outlined by Dr Lam.  This is a pilot community-based smoking cessation programme commissioned by the Department of Health and operated by one of the largest charitable organisations in Hong Kong, the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.  Smoking cessation services are now available in many locations around the territory and operated beyond office hours to cover evenings as well as weekends.  More importantly, the treatment and counseling services are completely free-of-charge.  We believe this will be welcome by smokers and non-smokers alike.  You will hear more about this as well as other smoking cessation programmes in the presentation by the Department of Health later today.

Reaffirming the Government's commitment

     I mentioned earlier that the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control began to apply to Hong Kong from 2006.  As part of China which is a party to the Convention, we uphold its aim of protecting the present and future generations from the harm of tobacco consumption and exposure to second-hand smoke.  WHO asks all parties to create a 100 per cent smoke-free environment.  This is by no means an easy target, but experience both domestic and overseas has encouraged us to believe that it is not a mission impossible either.  Many countries and regions have achieved spectacular results in reducing smoking and the harm it brings.  We in Hong Kong have also made some progress throughout the years.

     The key lies in concerted and relentless efforts.  Policy makers must have the will and determination to work towards this aim, and all who share the conviction in the community must also be ready to contribute in their respective capacities.

     Tobacco control is and will continue to be one of Hong Kong's key public health policy objectives.  We shall continue to dedicate substantial financial and manpower resources to this important area of work.  We shall also continue to strengthen our collaboration and exchange with all regional and international partners to achieve the laudable goal as set out by the WHO.

     Not long ago I was jeeringly called a "dreamer" when I said I wish to create a smoke-free Hong Kong for our community and our next generation.  This reminds me of the lyrics of a song by John Lennon:

     "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one, I hope someday you will join us, and the world will live as one."

     With these words, I wish you all a most fruitful time at this forum and every success in making our common dream come true.

     Thank you.

Ends/Thursday, February 12, 2009
Issued at HKT 20:25


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