Illegal smokes tax tempers

Nearly half the cigarettes sold in Hong Kong are illegal because of high prices, a tobacco concern group claims.

The finding was based on an informal “survey” carried out by the Vote Against Tax Hikes Alliance, which rummaged through dozens of trash bins in Lok Fu and Lam Tin public housing estates last month, picking up empty cigarette packages.

Of the 200 boxes retrieved, 92 were either from the mainland, or on which duty was not paid.

“High tobacco taxes are forcing more people to turn to illicit cigarettes, because regular cigarettes are too expensive and because it is difficult for them to quit smoking,” said VATA member Raymond Ho Man-kit.

VATA called on lawmakers to vote against the tax hike tomorrow.

Its call came as a paper submitted to the Legislative Council by the University of Hong Kong said 13,000 youths under the age of 19 smoke daily.

Ho said the large number is a concern, as it is also an indication of how many people buy cigarettes illegally.

Bacon Liu Sair-ching, of the Coalition of Hong Kong Newspaper and Magazine Merchants, said there has been a 30 percent drop in sales among his members since the tobacco tax was raised in February.

For most newsstands, one- third of their income comes from cigarette sales.

As part of the budget announced in February, tobacco taxes were raised by 50 HK cents a stick, lifting the typical retail price for a pack of 20 to HK$50.

I Smoke Alliance convener Mer Lee Cho-kwan said illicit cigarettes usually come from duty-free shops, or some may be imitations made in the mainland.

Illegally produced cigarettes usually contain far higher levels of nicotine and tar, and may even have other chemicals.

In the first three months of the year, 1,894 incidents of cigarette smuggling were detected, resulting in the seizure of 40.3 million sticks with an estimated street value of HK$93.4 million.

By Elizabeth Law

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