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Stick By Full Smoke Ban, Urge Academics

Loretta Fong and Nick Gentle, SCMP – Dec 10, 2008

Academics urged the government yesterday not to extend the grace period for full imposition of the smoking ban and not to allow bars to get around it with smoking rooms.

Their call came after a survey showed the lung function of non-smokers working in places where smoking is still allowed had deteriorated compared to those in venues where the ban is already in force.

Anti-smoking campaigner Anthony Hedley described the findings as “very important indicators of harm to current and future health”.

Places such as nightclubs, bars and mahjong parlours, which admit only people over 18, were exempted from the initial phase of the ban that took effect in January in most indoor public venues as well as parks and beaches. The grace period is due to end in the middle of next year.

Bar owners have claimed the ban would be “catastrophic” for their businesses in the shrinking economy and have called for the grace period to be extended or separate smoking rooms to be allowed – a proposal that the government is studying.

In the survey, results of which were released yesterday, University of Hong Kong researchers interviewed 157 non-smoking workers in smoke-free Chinese restaurants and cafes between February and June and compared them to 47 non-smokers who had worked in exempted bars and restaurants for an average of seven years. Interviewees took lung function tests and urine tests for tobacco chemicals. Of those aged 18 to 65, the estimated reduction in their lung function was 14 per cent, while for those aged 30 to 65 it was 22 per cent.

The difference in lung functions for the 18-65 group between exempted and smoke-free venues was 6.3 per cent and for those aged 30 to 65, 10.9 per cent.

Dr Hedley, professor of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said other scientific studies had shown that damage to the lungs posed “a serious risk for both acute and chronic disease”.

He said reduced lung function was also a strong predictor of reduced life expectancy. Even if workers did not have to serve food and drinks in smoking rooms, he said they still had to clean them and would suffer “additional hits” from “the off-gas from the furniture”.

Professor of public health Lam Tai-hin said people might show no symptoms of early lung problems, but in serious cases would develop breathing difficulties and other ills.

A bar owner said the industry was facing tough times and a complete smoking ban could be catastrophic. “The recession is starting to hit and bars are already beginning to close,” the owner said.

A government spokesman said a report on the feasibility of smoking rooms would be put to the Legislative Council later.

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