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Smokers Snuff Out in Hong Kong Bars as Ban Begins

Sanchez Wang and Nicholas Olczak, Bloomberg

Hong Kong smokers will be squeezed out of the city’s bars and clubs when a tobacco ban takes effect at midnight after the government rejected pleas for further reprieve, saying owners have had enough time to prepare.

“It’s time for the smokers to think about quitting,” said Ronald Lam, head of the Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Office. “The key message is that the government is working with the community to push for a smoke-free society.”

The ban aligns Hong Kong with much of the European Union, the U.S. and Australia, which have all acted to protect workers from tobacco smoke. While the city banned smoking in offices and at beaches, parks and shopping malls in 2007, more than 1,000 pubs, nightclubs and mahjong halls were granted temporary exemptions, which expire tomorrow.

“It’s 2 1/2 years overdue,” said James Middleton, chairman of Hong Kong anti-tobacco pressure group Clear the Air. “Health of the workers must always come before business profits.”

Under the law, smoking is barred in places that have a canopy, be it a ceiling or roof, and any space where at least half the area is enclosed. One way for bar patrons to smoke is to do so on the street outside.

Preventable Deaths

Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of death and claims 4.9 million lives a year globally, according to the World Health Organization. The habit is also the leading cause of illness and premature deaths in Hong Kong, according to a statement on the Tobacco Control Office’s Web site. An estimated 5,500 deaths a year result from smoking, the agency said.

Some bar owners had sought an extension of the exemptions because they are already smarting from slowing business. Visitor arrivals last month fell the most since the 2003 SARS epidemic, due to the global recession and concerns about swine flu, while unemployment is at a four-year high of 5.3 percent.

“There is a worry,” said Anima Lamarre-Delafoulhouse, the managing director of Makumba African Bar and Lounge in the SoHo district. “It’s a difficult time for business, but if the government doesn’t understand that, it’s really tough.”

In the U.K., where legislation was also introduced in 2007, beer consumption fell 5.5 percent last year, hurting profit at brewers including Heineken NV.

‘Smoke Less’

“It does make you smoke a lot less,” said Mike Norton, who arrived in Hong Kong from Britain in February. “In the U.K., it very quickly became completely socially unacceptable” to smoke in bars. Still, he said he had no plan to give up, but would look for bars with easy access to the street.

“The challenge is to adapt to changing circumstances,” said Neil Williams, a spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association in London. “Certainly you do hear from people who would like to see a change, but that’s not something realistic.”

The toughest part of Hong Kong’s anti-smoking drive may be its implementation. In Austria, a new law mandated that restaurants, bars and nightclubs larger than 80 square meters had to introduce separate smoking and non-smoking areas. By May 2009, Vienna declared the law ineffective, due to poor controls. Greece is making its third attempt in a decade to rein in smokers, after smokers ignored two earlier bans.

Policing the Law

Hong Kong’s government is relying on fewer than 100 inspectors to police the law, which allows for a fine of up to HK$5,000 ($643) for smokers. From Sept. 1, offenders will also be fined HK$1,500 on the spot. There are no sanctions for owners or managers who allow customers to flout the rules.

Faced with the global trend toward prohibition, some bar owners have already made the move.

“Initially it was very hard,” said Toby Cooper, who banned smoking at his British style pub in Central two years ago. “I lost many regular customers. But I also got the ones who appreciated the smoking ban. The most difficult time has gone.”

Some tobacco outlets are even anticipating a gain from the new rules.

Benson Tse, general manager of Cigarro Club, a members-only cigar store Queen’s Road Central, said he’s planning to open another club in nearby Causeway Bay.

The law allows “tasting rooms,” so long as they have independent ventilation and no serving employees.

“We see more customers coming to our club because they can’t smoke anywhere,” he said. “We expect a 10 to 15 percent increase in product sales.”

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