"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
"Smoking is projected to a take toll of one billion lives by the end of the 21st century."
Hearing that New Zealand proposes banning smoking, my emotional brain blurted out, "Good for you!”. Then my rational side engaged, "Wait a minute, this isn't going to work. All they've done is create a new revenue stream for the criminals and reduced government tax coffers".
On a positive note, smoking rates are falling worldwide. For generation Z —those born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s — 68% never smoked. Government policies and tactics played a role; gigantic health warnings, age restrictions, plain packaging, disgusting pictures of cancerous lungs, stiff taxes, public smoking bans and so on.
Less obvious is that people are more health-conscious. This change in the culture removes the subtle group pressure that may push young people into the habit. As a result, according to data for Hong Kong, 10% of the population are regular smokers, a decline from about 23% in the early 1980s.
Although Hong Kong's heavy taxation on cigarettes meant the triads and others, who illegally import untaxed tobacco that sells cheaper, had a business opportunity; that trade continues despite regular seizures.
The merits of reducing smoking are a non-brainer. In the US, cigarette smoking is the leading cause of cancer mortality. The National Cancer Institute director Norman Sharpless asserts," Eliminating smoking in America would cut about one-third of all cancer deaths."
Globally, tobacco use killed over 100 million people in the 20th century and is projected to a take toll of one billion lives by the end of the 21st century.
Yet still, some people keep smoking. And while officials and campaigners talk of an 'endgame' for smoking, that's a tricky one. For the record, I probably smoked about 10 cigarettes in my teens. Fortunately it always disagreed with me, and I avoided tobacco since. Watching a close relative slowly die from lung cancer reinforced the message - stay away.
As far as I can tell, only Bhutan tried to ban smoking starting in 2004. Almost immediately, this led to rapid growth in the illicit sale of tobacco.
Also, something else odd happened. As the ban was imposed, only 1% of the Bhutanese were smokers. However, recent data shows that around 34% of men and about 13.6% of women aged 18-69 are tobacco users– a stark growth in numbers.
What is going on? There is a suggestion that making smoking illegal developed an aura of the 'forbidden fruit' that attracted people to tobacco. This effect proved somewhat pronounced in young people. According to the Global Youth Tobacco Survey, the prevalence of tobacco use in this age group is disproportionately high in Bhutan.
Bhutan has now eased the ban because it drove illicit cross-border movement into India, bringing Covid back. Although, the Bhutan government asserts this relaxation is a temporary measure.
The proportion of people who smoke in New Zealand has fallen to 16%, while some 5,000 New Zealanders die from smoking-related causes every year. That death rate corresponds with global rates.
The New Zealand approach involves a long run-up to the all-out ban on smoking. Incrementally they plan to reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes. Anyone born after 2008 will not be able to buy cigarettes or tobacco products in their lifetime, under a law expected next year. Hence tobacco will be available for those born before 2008, allowing a black market to develop.
Also, nicotine may be the most addictive bit of smoking, but it is not the most harmful. The leading causes of disease are tar, toxic chemicals, and smoke inhalation.
How you enforce the age restrictions may prove a contentious issue. There are no national identity cards, and who carries the liability for proving age?
When the United States banned alcohol, under prohibition, Americans wanted to carry on drinking. So they did. Thus rather than legitimate, tax-paying businesses, they bought their alcohol from the mob. In the process, many law enforcement agencies fell to corruption as the mob gained influence.
Plus, I hear the US war on drugs is still going brilliantly. The country has millions of addicts that even militarised policing can't contain.
So, while New Zealand's approach is, on the surface, a worthy initiative, it is the unforeseen consequences that may trip up this bold move. Others argue that these proposals are illiberal, suggesting the New Zealand government is over-reaching in a intrusive manner.
Let’s see how this unfolds.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.