A multinational tobacco company that spent tens of millions of dollars on opening a research centre for new smoking products in Hong Kong said it may have to close it, putting dozens of jobs at risk, after a government U-turn to ban e-cigarettes.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris invested more than HK$78 million (US$10 million) in the Wong Chuk Hang facility, which opened in July last year, after the previous administration laid out proposals to regulate new smoking products.
But in October, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor suddenly announced proposals for a full ban on e-cigarettes and other smoking alternatives - leaving the US company out on a limb.
Brett Cooper, general manager of the Hong Kong and Macau branch of Philip Morris Asia, said the company had been lured to set up the facility in Hong Kong on the promise of innovation and technology, but now the possible closure of the site could put the jobs of more than 60 local employees at risk.
"There hasn't been a lot of clarity … the government has changed its mind a little bit. I think that it could have been clearer, as that could help us in terms of investment," Cooper said.
However, public health expert Daniel Ho Sai-yin dismissed the company's argument and said the ban was necessary to protect public health.
"We are talking about the lives of around 7,000 Hongkongers every year, as well as diseases suffered by many people," said Ho, a member of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, referring to the number of smoking-related deaths in the city.
According to health authorities, cigarette smokers have a higher chance of developing illnesses such as cancer and heart diseases. While some claim new smoking products such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products are less harmful than cigarettes, their effects on health are still unclear.
"People can still do other things if they are not working for tobacco companies," Ho said. "Technology should be used for treating people, not to design products to harm others."
The government's proposal on a full ban on e-cigarettes and other smoking alternatives was tabled to the Legislative Council in February. It will come into effect if Legco gives it the nod. Lam said in her policy address that there was "a lack of sufficient evidence to prove that these products can help quit smoking". She added that "the public may underestimate the harmful effects of these products".
A spokesman of the Food and Health Bureau said a six-month transitional period would be provided after the ordinance had been gazetted upon passage of the bill.
"The export of alternative smoking products is not banned and sellers can export the products at any time to clear their stocks," the spokesman added.
He said the government aimed to pass the bill as soon as possible.
Cooper said the company was working on a backup plan in case it had to close the Hong Kong centre.
The research and development centre tests heat-not-burn products - in which tobacco is heated by an electronic device rather than set alight - before they go on the market.
The centre was also a supply chain hub for the company to manage the global distribution of the products, Cooper said. Staff were involved in areas such as electronic engineering and supply chain management.
"The government's approach in the past in relation to innovation and technology had been quite refreshing and encouraging," said Cooper, adding the company wanted to be part of the development. "They were really pushing forward on how to make sure they got more R&D investment in the city."
Hong Kong's location made it a convenient spot for logistics, as the electronic devices for the company's heated tobacco products were made in Zhuhai, a city in the neighbouring Guangdong province, and Malaysia.
Last year, US$600 million worth of products were shipped from Zhuhai via Hong Kong to other parts of the world.
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