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September 2nd, 2009:

Staff too busy to enforce smoking ban, say unions

Regina Leung, SCMP

Two unions representing government workers said on Wednesday their members were too busy to hand out fixed-penalty tickets to people violating Hong Kong’s anti-smoking laws.

Their comments follow the extension on Tuesday of anti-smoking laws to include 48 public transport interchanges, bus terminals, wet markets, beaches and housing estates.

Some 2,200 staff from the Leisure and Cultural Service Department, 700 from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and 430 from the Housing Department are responsible for enforcing the new penalties.

But the Leisure Service Staff General Union and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department’s Staff Rights Union, said its members could not perform these extra duties because they did not have sufficient manpower.

However, Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene Cheuk Wing-hing said most of his staff had assured him they would not ignore their new duties.

“There is no truth to the allegations that our staff will refuse to do this work. There are 12 staff unions – which represent about 5,400 staff – involved in this enforcement work,’’ he said.

“All of them have pledged to stand firmly by their duties and will execute departmental guidelines when enforcing the new laws,” said Cheuk.

Cheuk said his staff had already issued six verbal warnings to offenders since the ban was extended to wet markets and public transport interchanges.

He said the department would provide training to enforcement officers.

Leisure and Cultural Services Department director Betty Fung Ching Suk-yee also said her staff had issued 800 verbal warnings to offenders on Tuesday.

Fung said the department understood union concerns about staff having too much work.

The extension of the smoking ban is part of the tough anti-smoking laws first introduced in early 2007.

They are controversial – with some organisations, such as karaokes, pubs and restaurants, arguing they will hurt their businesses.Smoking kills around 6,000 people in Hong Kong each year and passive smoking is estimated to kill around 1,000, experts say.

New bans and fines failing to deter smokers

Ng Yuk-hang and Austin Chiu, SCMP

Smokers continued to puff away at wet markets, transport interchanges and housing estates yesterday despite the introduction of a HK$1,500 fixed-penalty fine for offenders, instead of a summons.

The smoking ban was also extended yesterday to cover 48 covered public transport interchanges.

At Kowloon Tong public transport interchange, smokers stubbed out their cigarettes on a no-smoking sign that covered an astray on a litter bin.

At Lai Kok Estate in Sham Shui Po, some senior residents were seen smoking outside the designated smoking area. Housing Department staff, who can now issue fixed-penalty tickets, were nowhere to be seen.

At Hung Hom wet market, the South China Morning Post called the management office after finding some seafood vendors smoking. A staff member appeared moments later, but by then the smokers had finished their cigarettes.

One customer, who had been a regular shopper at the market for five years, said she regularly saw seafood vendors smoking and gambling during the lunch break. “I just hope the ban can stop them from producing secondhand smoke,” she said.

Director of Health Dr Lam Ping-yan said smoking control efforts would be more effective if they concentrated on education instead of issuing penalty tickets.

A total of 2,200 staff from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, 700 from Food and Environmental Hygiene and 430 from the Housing departments are now responsible for handing out fixed-penalty tickets to those who smoke in places under their management.

As of 4pm yesterday, the Tobacco Control Office had issued six tickets – three in indoor public places, one in an amusement game centre and two in public leisure areas.

Leisure and cultural services officers gave 498 verbal warnings. “As the smokers were co-operative, there was no need to issue fixed-penalty tickets,” a spokeswoman said.

A Housing Department spokesman said one ticket had been issued by 6pm. He said only the department’s housing managers and housing officers were responsible for handing out penalty tickets, and other staff would need to report to them to follow up when they spotted someone violating the ban.

As of 2pm, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department had made two verbal warnings.

Meanwhile, seven representatives from the two Food and Environmental Hygiene Department staff unions yesterday marched to the Legislative Council’s complaints division to file a complaint about being made to enforce the ban.

Though the staff were unwilling to hand out fixed-penalty tickets, Food and Environmental Department Staff Rights Union chairwoman Li Mei-siu said they had no choice because they feared their contracts would not be renewed.

A spokesman from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said it had contacted 12 major staff associations yesterday. He said they affirmed they would perform their duties diligently and would not turn a blind eye to offenders.