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January 2nd, 2008:

Cigarette Consumption Up Despite Smoking Ban in Hong Kong

Smokers puff 12m more each month after ban

Cigarette consumption up despite limit on smoking areas

Scarlett Chiang and Mary Ann Benitez – SCMP Jan 02, 2008

A year after the smoking ban was introduced in most public places, more than 12 million more cigarettes a month are being smoked in the city.

According to the Customs and Excise Department, the city consumed an average of about 289.67 million cigarettes per month last year, or about 14.5 million packs, while the average monthly consumption in 2006 was 277.65 million. Census figures for the end of 2006 showed the city had about 840,000 smokers.

Medical sector legislator Kwok Ka-ki said the increase showed the smoking ban was not motivating people to quit smoking. “I think the smoking ban can prevent second-hand smoke in public places,” he said, “but to motivate people to quit, the government still has a long way to go.”

Anti-smoking campaigner James Middleton of Clear the Air said the partial smoking ban had “no chance of success as long as [people] can continue to smoke in bars and restaurants that are granted these pathetic deferral exemptions”.

Mr Middleton said it was “business as usual for the tobacco companies and smokers alike”.

But the Tobacco Control Office insisted the ban was working.

Smoking is not allowed in indoor workplaces, restaurants, sports stadiums, parks and playgrounds or on beaches. But six types of establishments, including bars, nightclubs and mahjong parlours, have been given exemptions until June 30, 2009.

Anthony Hedley, chair professor of the department of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said the city’s growing population could account for the rising figures but added that so long as the prices of cigarettes stayed low, consumption would remain high.

“The price of cigarette and tobacco duty has not increased for seven years,” he said.

“The low price is the biggest driver of consumption. I am convinced this is because of long-term negotiations between the government and tobacco companies.”

The Tobacco Control Office has issued 3,360 summonses, including 998 at amusement game centres, 565 at food premises, 336 at markets, 315 at shops, 259 in shopping malls, 236 in parks, 139 on backstairs and 512 at other indoor public places.

As of November 30, about 1,300 people had been convicted, paying fines from HK$50 to HK$1,500.

Christine Wong Wang, head of the Tobacco Control Office, said: “The majority of the public, including some smokers, have shown appreciation of the statutory smoking ban, and voluntary compliance remains by and large the established norm.”

Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades vice-chairman Lock Kwok-on said restaurant business was hurt in the first six months of the ban but had steadied as customers became accustomed to it and more considerate in the second half of the year.

Many customers now were willing to step outside to smoke when told of the ban.

Dr Wong said the main aim of the ban was to protect people from second-hand smoke, but it may also have motivated more smokers to quit.

A smoking cessation hotline (1833183) set up by the Department of Health to counsel smokers had handled at least 5,800 calls since January last year – about 70 per cent higher than the previous year, she said.

But Dr Kwok said the department’s promotions were not enough to counter increased tobacco marketing towards teenagers since the introduction of the ban.

“A tobacco company will offer free delivery if you buy only two packages,” he said.

“Who needs delivery services to buy two packages of cigarettes? It must be targeting teenagers who cannot get them in a shop.”

It’s Time To Build On Smoking Ban’s Success

LEADER Jan 02, 2008 SCMP

The year-old public smoking ban has, without doubt, saved lives by reducing people’s exposure to second-hand smoke. But as a society, we have not made much headway in encouraging smokers to quit or discouraging others from taking up the deadly habit. The ban, therefore, has only been a partial victory for public health in Hong Kong.

As we report today, tobacco imports for local consumption rose slightly last year compared with the 12 months before the ban was introduced in January last year. Customs seizures of smuggled cigarettes also shot up. Much work lies ahead if we are to reduce the number of smokers in the city and the cost to public health services. Still, what the anti-smoking ban has already achieved deserves recognition and celebration. It has overcome the resistance and scepticism of the food services industry. Many restaurateurs who originally complained about a drop in business from smoking customers now acknowledge that business has returned to normal; many say their establishments now attract non-smoking customers who tended to avoid them in the past. Their experience will, it is hoped, convince operators of massage and mahjong parlours, nightclubs and bars to comply with the law when their exemption from the ban expires on June 30 next year.

But the ban’s most important result is no doubt the number of lives that have been saved from diseases caused by the inhalation of other people’s smoke. Though the ban is only a year old, that number should be significant.

According to the US surgeon general, there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke, which increases the risk of a heart attack by 30 per cent for non-smokers. This is on top of other smoke-related diseases they may develop from exposure.

Two new authoritative overseas studies, cited by the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, find that the number of heart attack admissions to hospitals dropped considerably just one year after a public smoking ban was imposed. Nine hospitals in Scotland experienced a 17 per cent drop in heart attack admissions a year after a ban was introduced in March 2006. New York State hospitals had, in general, an 8 per cent decline in admissions in 2004 after an anti-smoking law was introduced the year before. There is no reason to doubt something comparable has been achieved in Hong Kong with our own smoking ban.

But we need to do more. Food and Health Bureau officials should move quickly to streamline the ban’s enforcement by replacing the current summons system with a fixed penalty. This has widespread support among lawmakers, and its prompt passage by the Legislative Council is virtually guaranteed. What’s more, it will save the courts time and resources in having to handle summonses for smoking violations.

An unfortunate side effect of the indoor smoking ban is that it has pushed more smokers to light up in the streets. This has caused many people to complain frequently about having noxious fumes blown in their faces. In many overseas cities, people are banned from smoking outside main entrances to buildings and other public facilities. A similar ban should be considered in Hong Kong. Some established office buildings have already set aside smoking corners to stop smokers from causing a nuisance at entrances.

As a liberal society, we cannot outlaw smoking, but we should certainly do our best to ban the noxious practice where we can and frown upon it when we can’t.