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September 17th, 2009:

Official must apologise for union slur, say smoking-ban enforcers

Ng Yuk-hang, SCMP

A group of unionists has demanded an apology from the director of food and environmental hygiene for questioning their legitimacy and “stepping on labour rights” in a speech about enforcing the smoking ban.

About 10 unionists protested yesterday at the department’s office in Admiralty against director Cheuk Wing-hing, who said this month that workers who failed to enforce the smoking ban could be disciplined.

Cheuk also urged the public “not to be misled by the requests of some unions that had unknown membership”.

FEHD Staff Rights Union chairwoman Li Mei-siu said it was disrespectful that Cheuk accused them of having an unknown number of members, apparently questioning how representative it was.

“We are a proper labour union and went through proper registration,” she said, adding that they had immediately sent protest letters but had not received a reply.

Li said Cheuk’s warning of disciplinary action was shattering unions’ effort to fight for more rights. “The government should be a role model for all employers, but now they set a bad example,” she said.

The row between unionists and the department began with the extension of smoking bans on September 1. Among the new provisions, 700 staff from the department, 2,200 from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and 430 from the Housing Department are responsible for issuing HK$1,500 fines to people caught smoking in places under their management.

But some workers are unwilling to enforce the ban, citing safety and workload concerns.

A department spokesman said it had not received any resignations or requests to change jobs but would continue to communicate with the unions.

He confirmed that on September 5, a worker was slightly injured by a smoker when enforcing the ban in a wet market.

As of yesterday, the department had made 108 verbal warnings and fined four people.

New York leads the charge in America’s anti-smoking laws


Once, America was in thrall to the Marlboro Man. The hard-smoking cowboy, staring moodily from his horse at a far-off horizon, symbolised a certain kind of freedom and – not coincidentally – helped sell millions of cigarettes.

But now America’s smokers are groaning – or maybe that should be wheezing – under a flood of new measures designed to make them give up. Or, at the very least, to drive their habits from public view to something furtively done in private.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced plans to try to ban smoking in the city’s public parks, adding to the 2002 ban on smoking in offices, restaurants and bars. That would see the Big Apple take on one of the most ambitious urban anti-smoking bans in the world, forbidding its citizens from lighting up in hundreds of city parks and 22 kilometres of beaches.

But the New York move is just the tip of an iceberg of anti-smoking policies spreading across the country in a variety of arenas, ranging from rental cars to the army and people’s homes.

From next month, Avis and Budget will be the first major American car rental companies to ban smokers from puffing away in their vehicles, charging cleaning fees of up to US$250 for those who flout the rules.

Chicago has already taken its ban outside by forbidding smoking on beaches and in playgrounds. In California, the small city of Belmont, just outside San Francisco, has even banned it in apartment buildings, marking the first real advance of anti-smoking laws into personal homes.

Perhaps the biggest recent shock has been a study commissioned by the Pentagon that said smoking should be banned in the military. Though few changes are expected soon in the army, the idea of stopping American soldiers lighting up in a combat zone after a firefight triggered a wave of headlines.

Yet it is still New York that is on the frontline of America’s anti-smoking wars. The city celebrates its global reputation for hard partying, tolerance of different lifestyles and rabid individualism, yet Bloomberg has successfully made the Big Apple’s smokers one of the few social groups it is considered acceptable to ostracise.

On Monday, Bloomberg – a former smoker himself – admitted that when he sees smokers hunkered together outside buildings he gives them “a not particularly nice look” as he walks past.

His comments appeared to be aimed at encouraging other New Yorkers to do likewise. “Social pressure really does work,” he said. It certainly seems to have made New York smokers into a fairly subdued bunch as they faced yet further constraints.

Hurrying across New York’s Madison Square park – one of the areas where a ban would come into place – Janaria Kelly shrugged off the news as he clutched a lighted cigarette.

“They have already banned it in so many other places, that it won’t make much difference,” said the 43-year-old salesman. Kelly added that he understood, and even sympathised with, the reasons for the ban. “Smoking is my choice, but I know it is bad for me, so I get why they are doing it,” he said.

That is music to the ears of the anti-smoking movement. Some reports have shown that smoking-related health care costs are almost US$100 billion a year, and this is against a background of rising health care costs for the government.

Bloomberg, and many others, have made it clear that they see smoking as expensive to wider society, not just as a private habit for the individual, and have not shied away from draconian measures that would be hard to impose on other products.

But smoking rights groups have made no secret of their horror at the latest moves, equating it with a loss of individual freedom being imposed on the public from above.

“The American public is not asking for this. It is coming from government and non-government groups, and it is attacking basic rights of freedom,” said Maryetta Ables, president of Forces International, a conservative group that campaigns on issues of personal freedom in smoking, eating and other consumer choices. But Ables admitted that the climate in the US seemed to indicate that her group was fighting a losing battle at the moment. “There is going to be more of this sort of thing to come,” she said.

That did not seem to bother Paul Collins, 39, another smoker lighting up in Madison Square park as he recovered from the stresses of his morning commute into the city.

“If they do it, they do it,” he said with an air of resignation. “The smoking ban in bars was actually good for me. I cut down a bit. So I don’t really mind.”

That is not the fighting spirit among smokers that the Marlboro Man was meant to encourage.

But then the Marlboro Man is perhaps not the best smoking symbol any more. Several of the cowboys used as models in the campaign contracted lung cancer and became anti-smoking campaigners.

New York banned smoking in most restaurants in 1995, followed by workplaces and indoor public places in 2003, three years before such bans in Scotland and four years before England and Wales.

However, the Department of Health in England said that it had no plans to extend smoke-free areas, saying such moves were up to local authorities.

In Australia, smoking was banned on Sydney’s Bondi beach in 2004, after similar prohibitions on dogs, ball games and frisbees. Soon after, the local council restricted alcohol consumption on the beach.

In Holland, Amsterdam’s coffee shops were not exempted from a ban on smoking in public places. There, pure cannabis or cannabis resin can be legally smoked – as long as it is not mixed with tobacco.

The Guardian