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Blind Eyes Towards Ban

By ADRIAN WAN CHUN-HO – Hong Kong Baptist University

Though the smoking ban has been in effect for about a year in Hong Kong, smokers are still to be found lighting up in public places.

The Tobacco Control Office (TCO) of Department of Health began working round the clock after citizens’ unlawful smoking sprees were found to run rampant when Tobacco Control Inspectors (TCI) and telephone receivers all went off duty.

Although implementation has been stepped up, smokers are still found lighting up in many entertainment premises such as game centres, high-rise cafes, internet cafes, karaoke lounges and private clubs in districts such as Mongkok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay.

Paul Wong Tai-long, a smoker said he smokes only if he sees other people do it in the same place.

“People smoke and never get caught. Why should I obey the law?” he questioned, pointing at other smokers in a game station in Hung Hom.

Being one of the regulars at the station, he visits three times a week, two hours each time. He said he has seen TCIs check up on smokers only three times since the ban was in place, thus seems rather safe to smoke.

A non-smoker named Joey commented in an internet cafe in Mongkok, “[The smokers] are utterly selfish. They disregard the law and disrespect themselves. I don’t like people smoking next to me when I’m having fun here.”

As only half of all the internet cafes in Hong Kong are lawabiding, and they charge higher prices. The rest, which offer lower prices, indulge their customers in a smoky and obscure milieu, left Joey with no choice.

When filing a complaint to the TCO was suggested, she replied, “I don’t think it is going to be useful. My friends tried. They always say they will investigate.”

James Middleton, a member of Clear The Air, a volunteer group committed to combate against air pollution in Hong Kong, commented on the situation, “[The TCO] are massively understaffed. By the time a complaint is made and TCIs get there, the offenders are long gone.”

“The government should make use of other employees such as those from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) to enforce the law,” he said.

An official from the TCO explained, “Once we receive a complaint, we will investigate the case by obtaining relevant information from the complainant. This is then followed by conducting a field inspection of the alleged premises.”

Where smoking is not allowed, ash trays are not supposed to be seen. However, smoke and ash trays are all over the place in a snooker club in Wong Tai Sin.

The club manager, who requested anonymity, said it is necessary because if ash trays are not provided, the cigarette ash and butts that customers leave over will catch his club on fire.

Mr Li Bo-lung, a client, lighting up in the club, claimed he was only “making use of the facilities provided”. He said, “Don’t ask me why I smoke. Ash trays are provided here. Ask the manager.”

When the suggestion was made to remove the ash trays, so that customers can be more aware of the law, the manager said he does not want the carpet damaged by cigarette ends, while puffing away at a cigarette himself.

Ash trays are not only seen in that particular club, they are everywhere, sometimes appear in different forms.

Some restaurants have adopted a way to get around the law : supplying smaller bowls instead of those obvious ash trays. It begs the question whether venue managers should be liable to a penalty when customers are caught lighting up.

Middleton said, “In licensed premises there should be a fine for the licensee if he does not enforce the ban, with loss of his license for subsequent offences.”

The TCO official said, “TCIs will liaise with the venue manager to identify any deficiency in anti-smoking measures such as the lack of no-smoking signs, inadequate legal knowledge and insufficient law enforcement skills”.

The ban, introduced on January 1, applies to all indoor public places, such as restaurants, workplaces, schools and karaoke lounges. Smoking outdoors, at public beaches, swimming pools, and sports grounds, is also forbidden.

In spite of this, about 750 facilities have been given deferment of the ban, thus are allowed to permit smoking on their premises until July 1, 2009.

The requirements for being able to defer the ban are minimal at best, with the stated criteria simply calling for no one under the age of 18 being allowed to enter the premise, having an exclusive entrance for clients to enter in by, and an age limit sign prominently displayed in Chinese and English at each entrance.

“It’s a laughing stock that any bar or restaurant which applies is granted a smoking exemption, while the law is intended to save lives of the bar and restaurant workers,” Middleton said.

According to their website, the TCO has issued altogether 1,975 summonses from 1 January 2007, the day when the ban became effective, to 30 September 2007. Violators are subject to a maximum penalty of $5,000. Venues are not liable to any penalty.

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