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Hong Kong must better enforce laws that safeguard public health

The deaths of a non-smoking colleague and his non-smoking wife from lung cancer, and diagnoses of advanced lung cancer in four non-smoking friends, prompted a medical practitioner to write a letter that appeared on this page last week. He implored the government to ban smoking in the street and remove rubbish bins that serve as ashtrays. That is to say, if smoking was not to blame for these cases, passive smoking of undispersed tobacco fumes had to be a suspect.

This prompts questions about enforcement of laws against smoking in public – and, indeed, enforcement of many laws that regulate our freedoms for the greater good. It so happens that the day before we published the letter we took a look at 10 of the most common of these laws and figures for enforcement.

The anti-smoking law was one of two against public habits implicated in community health problems. The other was the idling engine law, which is blamed for unacceptable levels of roadside pollution. The ban on smoking in indoor public spaces resulted in more than 8,000 penalty notices last year, or more than 150 a week. As a public health measure it would be more effective if venues were not exempt from punishment and the ban were imposed in busy pedestrian thoroughfares.

Enforcement officers timed 1,127 vehicles with idling engines last year, but issued only 46 fixed penalty notices. Clearly, breaches of the idling limit of three minutes within a 60-minute period are not easily established, or so open to dispute that officers may not feel encouraged to try very hard.

Police ticketed almost 1.2 million parking offenders last year and prosecuted more than 20,000 pedestrians for road safety offences such as jaywalking, and environment officers fined nearly 29,000 litterbugs in the year to March 31.

These laws are well accepted. In the cases of the idling engine and smoking laws, vested interests opposed to them can be the only ones happy with the enforcement figures. For the sake of public health, the government should review their operation with a view to making them more effective.

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