Amendment bill to ban heated tobacco products may go up in smoke

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Podcast: Heated tobacco products may offer a less harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes, but Hong Kong isn’t ready to embrace them just yet. Podcast host Jasmine Lee speaks with a spokesperson of tobacco company Philip Morris International and a Hong Kong lawmaker to learn more about the topic.

To learn more about heated tobacco products and their controversial status in Hong Kong, listen to the latest Spyglass episode available on Soundcloud.

An amendment intended to avoid a total ban of alternative smoking products (ASPs) and legally differentiate between heated tobacco products, e-cigarettes, and other ASPs is still pending in the Legislative Council’s bills committee.

In 2018 Hong Kong’s government proposed the regulation of ASPs, but made a turn-around on that decision after parents and teachers raised concerns that these products would encourage non-smokers – particularly young people – to pick up smoking, effectively opening up a new market. Instead, it went ahead with a bill, gazetted February last year, that would place a complete ban on ASPs in Hong Kong.

Raymond Chan, bills committee member and chair of the People Power party, expresses his disapproval of this ban on the currently unregulated smoking alternative products.

“The government has never offered us any good reasons to support the ban. The government claims alternative smoking products are equally harmful to cigarettes and cigars, but then cigarettes and cigars are not banned in Hong Kong – they are under regulation.” 

He also advocates for the lowered health risks affiliated with these new alternatives. 

“If anything, some studies show that heat-not-burn tobacco products produce less fumes and there will be less secondhand smoking. The government claims these studies are too new, but to ban the products because it is just new is simply absurd.”

Tommaso Di Giovanni, VP Market Activation and Support at Philip Morris International (PMI), argues that precautionary measures have been taken to ensure that iQOS, their heated tobacco product, is targeting people who already smoke traditional cigarettes, and not opening new markets.

“Those who don’t smoke shouldn’t start and young people shouldn’t use any nicotine or tobacco at all… [We] make sure all our communication and all the design of the products doesn’t appeal to them… [A]fter the product is on the market we continue to monitor who uses it [and] how they use it so we can ensure that non-smokers and other categories [have no] appeal for this product.”

Raymond Chan has proposed a motion in the bills committee to differentiate between the types of ASPs so that future policies accurately reflect the features unique to the varying kinds of products. But due to a number of factors including the cancellations of bills committee meetings due to the coronavirus outbreak, higher-priority bills, and the incoming LegCo elections in September, Mr Chan has his doubts that his motion will make it through the legislative processes – that is, if the amendment even receives enough support from the committee to get to its second and third readings.

“If the government cannot finish this whole legislative process in these few months,” he opines, “the bill is likely to be sent back to the drawing board – so back to zero.”

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