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Growing number of female smokers is a worrying trend

The anti-smoking battle in Hong Kong isn’t over yet.

John Tsang Chun-wah, the city’s financial secretary, will unveil the government’s Budget for the year ending March 31, 2017, today (Wednesday). He is strongly advised to raise tobacco tax again to discourage people, particularly women, from smoking.

The number of female smokers is small, but the growing trend is worrying. The number of female smokers rose to 3.2 percent in 2015 from 3.1 percent a year earlier. Just imagine the damage done to young people if they smoke at home with children playing in the same room.

The percentage of people who smoke in Hong Kong has fallen, according to government figures. It dropped to 10.5 percent in 2015 from 11.8 percent in 2009. The decline, however, did not look impressive. Joining hands, the government and the community can do a better job in reducing the population of smokers in the city.

The government’s Hospital Authority statistics show that 75,870 young people under the age of 18 were admitted to hospital between 2004 and 2012 (the latest numbers available) due to diseases caused by lower respiratory tract infections. They included serious complaints such as empyema, pleural effusions and abscesses in the lung. Of those admitted to hospital, 80 percent were pre-schoolers of five years old or younger. Many of the diseases were smoking-related.

The government should enact new laws to prohibit smoking in any common areas of any residential premises or buildings (e.g. common corridors, staircases); any covered or underground pedestrian walkways; any pedestrian overhead bridges; any bus interchanges (not just bus stops), including any area within a certain radius of bus shelters; and hospital outdoor compounds.

More importantly, the government should also ban smoking in public areas with a queue of three or more people. Hong Kong people love to queue. We queue for cinema tickets, we queue in front of a sushi shop or cha chaan teng (Cantonese-style restaurants) and we queue for application forms for our children to enter favored kindergartens. The second-hand smoke that people inhale, in case there is a smoker in the queue, can cause cancer or other serious — even fatal — diseases.

The government and NGOs in the city can expand publicity campaigns (NGOs can raise funds from wealthy tycoons in the city) to call on people to quit smoking and discourage others, particularly young people, from contracting this unhealthy habit. We should spread the message that smoking isn’t “cool.”

More than 60 percent of school-age children could avoid chest infections if there were more no-smoking areas in Hong Kong, University of Hong Kong (HKU) medical and public health academics advocated recently. They said youngsters under the age of 18 are susceptible to pollutants produced by smokers, so the risk of infection could be reduced if the government extended prohibition on smoking.

In a study, the HKU academics deduced that the effect of second-hand smoke on children aged 6 to 18 will be more apparent as they tend to spend more time outside the home and are therefore more exposed to pollutants. And of course, parents with minor children are strongly advised not to smoke at home.

Smoking in local universities is banned. Some university authorities have placed rubbish bins on the roads linking the campuses with neighboring residential districts. Scores of young students can always be seen smoking around these bins and extinguishing the cigarette butts on the dustbins. People often describe such scenes as dabinlo (eating around a hotpot). It is a good practice to keep the streets clean but, more importantly, university authorities are well-advised to dispatch volunteering teams (composed of teachers and students) to these gathering sites to talk to the smokers, trying to convince them to quit smoking and keep the campuses smoke-free. Students are society’s future leaders and they must set a good example.

This is a small step but it is a major step in the battle to rid campuses, and Hong Kong at large, of smokers.

The author is a veteran journalist and an adjunct professor at Shue Yan University.

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