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January 26th, 2008:

Tobacco Lobby Told Not To Stand In Way Of Fixed Penalties

Mary Ann Benitez and Loretta Fung
Jan 26, 2008

Tobacco-friendly legislators were told yesterday not to use delaying tactics on a bill to impose a fixed penalty on smoking offences.

The comments came as the Executive Council on Tuesday endorsed the bill for a HK$1,500 fixed-penalty system on lighting up in no-smoking areas.

The bill is expected to be tabled in the Legislative Council for first reading in April or May, after it was discussed by Legco’s health services panel in February or March, sources said.

Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok has already said he expects the bill to be implemented next year.

Council on Smoking and Health chairman Homer Tso Wei-kwok said he hoped a fixed penalty would be enforced as early as possible.

“The sooner the better,” he said. “But it does not look likely. It is beyond my comprehension why it is taking so long.”

He said a fixed penalty was first brought up during the amendment stage in the bills committee that scrutinised the amended Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance.

A source described the bill as “not a big deal”, requiring just a minor change in the law.

But the source said legislators might form a subcommittee to scrutinise the amendment.

“We do not know when a bill can be implemented until it is passed by legislators,” the source said.

Medical sector legislator Kwok Ka-ki confirmed the Executive Council endorsement yesterday, adding that the bill could be introduced to the Legco by next month.

“I believe the majority of legislators will support the bill, and I hope everything can be done in the first quarter,” Dr Kwok said.

Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong legislator Li Kwok-ying, who is chairman of the Legco health services panel, said he believed most members would endorse the fixed penalty. “I understand all political parties will agree to a fixed-penalty system but the details are being discussed,” he said.

But Liberal Party legislator Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, who represents the catering sector, said the fixed-penalty bill should be scrutinised.

“I do not think delaying the enforcement is an issue,” he said.

Penalties for smoking offences were already in place, with fines of up to HK$5,000, he said. “Anything that would arouse public interest should be scrutinised,” he said.

Health services panel vice-chairman Joseph Lee Kok-long was concerned about the tight schedule.

“If the government puts it to the Legislative Council in April, we will only have three months to [discuss it] before the end of our term.”

Professor Lee said the passage of the bill would depend on the amendments. “If it is just a fixed penalty, it will be simple. Otherwise it will be a prolonged discussion,” he said.

The Department of Health will review the manpower strength of the Tobacco Control Office, which has 70 inspectors to enforce the smoking ban.