The World Health Organisation has handed Hong Kong a key role in the global battle against smoking, in recognition of the city’s success in cutting tobacco consumption.
A combination of higher taxes, social factors and effective anti-tobacco campaigning has seen the number of people aged 15 and above who smoke in Hong Kong drop to a current level of 11.1 per cent, down from 12 per cent in 2009, and one of the lowest rates in the developed world.
The low rate of smoking has won praise from the WHO, which says Hong Kong’s achievements can serve as an example not only to the mainland – which is home to the highest number of smokers in the world – but the wider region.
Senior WHO adviser Susan Mercado told the Sunday Morning Post that, from next year, Hong Kong will host the international organisation’s global collaboration centre on tobacco control.
Hong Kong will become the first “non-country” to take up the training role, normally only reserved for sovereign states. It will see health professionals from around the region coming to the city to be schooled in smoking-cessation skills.
The collaboration centre, which will come under the auspices of the Hong Kong Tobacco Control Centre, will train 50 health professionals each year. A particular target of their work will be the mainland’s moderate and heavy smokers. It is the WHO’s fourth collaboration centre on tobacco control in Asia, after Japan, Singapore and mainland China.
“Hong Kong is doing very well, particularly in terms of enforcement. It can set an example for China,” said Mercado, the WHO regional adviser on Tobacco Free Initiative.
As home to one-third of the world’s population of smokers, the mainland is seen as an important target for the stop-smoking message.
According to the WHO, at least half of the mainland’s male population smokes, compared with one in five in Hong Kong. Overall, the proportion of mainlanders who smoke – 28.1 per cent – is nearly three times that of Hong Kong.
Mercado said she was “excited by what would be a world-class facility” in the city.
Hong Kong has banned smoking in most indoor areas, including entertainment premises such as pubs and sauna parlours, as well as beaches. Offenders face a fixed penalty of HK$1,500.
Countries in Asia are striving to lower smoking rate, as cigarettes have proven to be a major risk factor for cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
During a WHO regional meeting held in the Philippines last week, WHO director general Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun – a former Hong Kong health chief – said the mainland was making progress on tobacco control but that authorities expected to face challenges from the industry.