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Smoking ban must be properly enforced


The blanket ban on smoking in indoor public places has finally taken full effect. After years of inaction and foot-dragging, Hong Kong has finally complied with World Health Organisation recommendations. There has been much debate about the legislation and there are still owners of entertainment establishments who believe it is not good for business. We have moved on from that discussion; it is now time to ensure that a law to protect community health is properly enforced.

The health risks of smoking and inhaling second-hand smoke are well documented. Mandatory warnings on cigarette packets tell of the diseases and cancers and vulnerability to illnesses. Studies show that only 100 per cent smoke-free environments offer adequate protection for employees and patrons. The law makes perfect sense.

Despite this, the owners of bars, nightclubs, mahjong parlours and the like have argued for, and won, exemptions and delays. Their media advertisements have warned of a loss of business and the possibility that they will have to lay off workers or close down. The economic crisis, swine flu and a smoking ban make for a troublesome combination, they say. There is no doubt that times are not good for such establishments and some will go under; it is wrong, though, to use the ban as an argument for more exemptions.

Restaurants were in the same position when the ban was imposed at the start of 2007. Many initially complained of a drop in income as smokers stayed away, but business returned to normal when people who did not smoke were attracted. The same has been the experience of cities the world over where smoking bans have been introduced. Bars have no reason to fear the law.

The legislation, unlike in many jurisdictions elsewhere, does not put the onus of enforcement on business owners. They do not face the possibility of loss of licence for non-compliance. The HK$1,500 fine to be paid within 21 days by people caught smoking – which in other public places attracts a HK$5,000 penalty – does not take effect for two months. No decision has yet been made on how to ensure non-residents caught breaking the law pay their fines. These are gaps that the government’s Tobacco Control Office has to do its utmost to deal with.

There will be teething problems. Only in coming weeks will we know whether there are enough enforcement officers. More education is necessary. The best means of dealing promptly with flagrant violators will have to be found. Introduction of the ban is not the end of the matter. It is just another step in a process that has to be strengthened to wean smokers off their habit and convince others not to take it up. Every effort has to be made to ensure the law is respected. Authorities must ensure it is not flouted.

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