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Up In Smoke – December 26th, 2008

In six months, the government will lay down the final piece in its smoking-ban puzzle. The staggered anti-smoking legislation—first all indoor workplaces and eateries in January 2007, all bars and nightclubs in July 2009—has caused nothing but confusion and chaos since its passing in 2006. And now comes another problem: do we change tack in light of the financial crisis? Persistent rumors have been saying that the government is going to delay the complete ban, or create other loopholes such as “smoking rooms.”

What with our shrinking economy, many bar owners have said that the complete ban would be disastrous to their business (though they declined to speak to us on record), and several of them have put forward suggestions for either delaying the remainder of the ban or providing the option of smoking rooms. The government’s response was clear: “The concerned industries have been given almost three years for making the transition. [We have] no plans to amend the concerned provisions in the ordinance,” said Li Wan-in, assistant secretary for the Food and Health Bureau. “[We have] not reached any conclusion on the feasibility of smoking rooms,” adding that they expect to complete that study in the first quarter of 2009.

Still, many bar owners insist that they will be disproportionately hurt when the complete ban comes into effect July 1, 2009. But experts believe they are just trying to take advantage of a chaotic situation. “The ban is long overdue,” says Dr. Judith Mackay, director of the Asian consultancy on tobacco control. “A full ban should’ve been introduced from the beginning to create a level playing field. The exemptions have just created confusion, and now some bar owners are taking advantage of that.”

What’s there to take advantage of? It’s hard to tell what kind of logic the bar owners are using: both local and international statistics have proven that they wouldn’t lose out financially. For one thing, a ban would mean immediate savings on fire insurance, property damage and time off for sick workers. And if the exemption has given us one thing, it’s valid receipts: restaurant revenues for the first quarter of 2008 were 30 percent higher than that of the same period in a pre-ban 2006.

Others disagree. The Legco representative for the catering industry, Tommy Cheung, feels that the numbers don’t give an accurate picture. The economy was at a high point in the beginning of 2008, and he says we should look at numbers from the dire last two quarters of this year instead. Because of that fact, he feels strongly that not only should there be an exemption, but that the full ban should be permanently delayed until the crisis is over. “Right now is not the time to do anything drastic or create any hardship for the public,” says Cheung.

Of course, many don’t feel Cheung’s thoughts are in keeping with public opinion, and that his viewpoint has been clouded by financial concerns and missing the real point: public health. When asked how he suggests restaurant and bar workers deal with the unwanted effects of secondhand smoke, he replies simply: “Workers have a choice.” Obviously not everyone agrees.

“How can anyone charged with representing the catering industry press for bar staff to work in a toxic atmosphere?” asks James Middleton, chairman of the anti-tobacco committee of Clear the Air. “Health must always come before business interests.” Facts illustrating the debilitating effects of secondhand smoke are everywhere, but even those in the industry believe the situation is out of hand. “There’s no reason anyone should be subjected to losing their lung capacity because they were working in a bar,” says Mark Joyce, manager of the Pickled Pelican bar on Wyndham Street. “They’re not the highest paid people, so why should they put up with additional health problems?”

And there’s also the law. Hong Kong’s Occupational Health Law specifically states that “every employer must…ensure the safety and health at work of all their employees.” Mackay puts things in an interesting perspective: “If a factory in Kwun Tong had chemical poison in the air, under the government’s laws, there’s a responsibility to shut it down. This is no different.”

So what other option is left for desperate pro-smoking bar owners but a smoking room? Despite the fact that these rooms seem scantly beneficial in terms of health (experiments have proven that it would take tornado-speed winds to remove the carcinogens in one of these rooms), and that they don’t make sense in the current economic crisis (since they will be extremely expensive to install), the government has agreed to conduct a feasibility study on installing the rooms, which is scheduled to be finished sometime in the first quarter of 2009. Even if that study were to suggest the provision of smoking rooms, it’s a hugely expensive option. “You practically have to strip down a building to install a fully ventilated smoking room,” says Mackay.

So expect the ban to kick in fully in 2009. But there is one more problem. Few figures show that smoking has actually declined in the city since the partial ban took effect earlier this year. In fact, the Customs and Excise Department recorded a total of 3.756 billion sticks of duty-paid cigarettes between October 2007 and September 2008, which is an increase of 9.1 percent when compared to the same time period between 2006 and 2007. Many health experts feel that this only points to one thing: follow the lead of the US and UK and raise cigarette taxes.

As part of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Hong Kong is mandated to increase taxes on a regular basis, says Middleton. It hasn’t increased from its current 50 percent of the retail price for eight years. “In the UK, the average tax per pack is £4.33, or 77 percent of the retail price. They also instituted a complete ban in bars and restaurants, and in its first year, 400,000 people quit smoking and sales reduced remarkably.”

As for that option, a feasibility study on raising tobacco taxes has not even begun. Let’s hope the government sees sense and helps us kick the habit once and for all.

by Pavan Shamdasani.

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