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August 2nd, 2009:

Up to the government to make smoking ban work


Hongkongers are known for being resourceful and innovative, so it comes as no surprise our city’s smokers lost no time adapting to the extension of the smoking ban to bars and entertainment venues. In as little time as it takes to light up, they found ways around the ban by moving to upstairs or out-of-the-way bars prepared to tolerate them, or even standing in a street-front bar with one foot on the pavement, blowing cigarette smoke outwards.

If just some of them get tired of it and give up smoking, and fewer young people take it up, then from a community health point of view, the long fight to bring in the ban in the face of opposition from licensees will have been worth it. The prospect of a fixed HK$1,500 fine on offending smokers that begins next month should help.

There is, however, a need for the ban to be better enforced. Bar owners should not tolerate the breaking of the law on their premises and they certainly should not facilitate it. But they are not held legally responsible if their customers choose to smoke. It is therefore unrealistic to expect them to ensure the ban is strictly observed. This can only be done by stepping up monitoring by inspectors.

Bars, pubs and massage and mahjong parlours are struggling to adapt, according to the Hong Kong Bar and Club Association, with business down 20 to 40 per cent in bars and clubs, by a third in mahjong parlours and by half in massage parlours. As a result, more than 30 bars will likely close, it says. But it is difficult to know how much of this is attributable to the smoking ban, given that many businesses are suffering during the economic downturn.

Those prepared to stick it out may well find that their concerns about the ban are premature. For every smoker, there are three non-smokers. No one knows how many non-smokers – consciously or not – bypassed bars and clubs to avoid second-hand smoke for health or aesthetic reasons, or because their friends preferred to socialise elsewhere. The priority, though, is protecting public health. The ban must be effectively enforced if that is to be achieved.