THE GOVERNMENT has proposed amendments to the law to impose a blanket ban on the sale of products such as electronic cigarettes and heat-not-burn cigarettes. The move has been welcomed in unison by the medical and education sectors. A number of pro-establishment and pan-democratic political parties, however, have expressed reservations about the amendment. It is uncertain whether the new law can get through the Legislative Council.
The rising popularity of e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn cigarettes in recent years has brought new opportunities for tobacco producers to explore new markets. Targeting young people, some of these producers have introduced new products with fruit, candy and popcorn flavours to "nurture" a new generation of smokers. While the medical and education sectors have called for a blanket ban on the sale of these products, the government has changed its position repeatedly. It made a U-turn at one point last year, recommending the regulation of such products by legislation rather than a ban on the sale, which would have the effect of legalising e-cigarettes. The suggestion attracted quite a lot of criticism. At last, the government made up its mind and agreed to a blanket ban on the import, manufacture, sale, distribution and advertising of e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn cigarettes to safeguard the health of children and young people.
The proposed amendments tabled by the government to the Legislative Council make it illegal to import products such as e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn cigarettes, giving exemption only to products and air freight in transit. Citizens are not allowed to bring these new tobacco products to Hong Kong after travelling abroad. As the amendment is not aimed at punishing smokers but nipping products such as e-cigarettes in the bud and preventing them from gaining popularity in Hong Kong, the government is not planning to outlaw the use of alternative tobacco products.
The amendment will be tabled to the Legislative Council next Wednesday (February 20) for its first reading. Judging from the stances adopted by a number of pan-democratic and pro-establishment parties, it remains uncertain whether the new law will be passed. Some lawmakers have voiced opposition to the ban on the grounds that it "undermines the tradition of the free market economy". Some say that heat-not-burn cigarettes are "less harmful" than traditional cigarettes and do not warrant an outright ban. Some politicians claim that public policies should be fair and that the government should not ban e-cigarettes if it does not ban traditional ones. Some people even ask vociferously why the government has not banned alcohol. The views against the ban are various and of dubious validity. It is necessary for the medical sector to refute these arguments vigorously to set the record straight.
There are still hundreds of thousands of smokers in Hong Kong, making it impossible to ban smoking in one step. That, however, does not mean that the government cannot start by banning new tobacco products. Those who refuse to quit smoking can always return to traditional cigarettes if electronic ones are banned — they will not be deprived of the freedom to smoke. People from the legal sector have also pointed out that the different ways by which the government handles e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes are not grounds for judicial review. E-cigarettes, after all, are new products, which bear no comparison with traditional cigarettes which were introduced a long time ago.
There is no way for outsiders to know how actively tobacco producers engage in political lobbying in Hong Kong. But the World Health Organisation has concluded that they have interfered with public health policies and hindered governments' efforts to control smoking around the world. As representatives of the public, lawmakers should keep their distance from tobacco producers and must not become their mouthpiece.