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Many feel free to flout smoke ban

Amy Nip, Austin Chiu, Dan Kadison and Peter So – SCMP

Some venue operators turn a blind eye, while others help smokers bend the rules

Patrons of bars and entertainment venues are flouting the ban on smoking in such places a month after it took effect, with some operators saying they can’t stop them from doing so and others apparently providing ways for them to bend the rules.

While venues in popular entertainment areas open to the street are mostly smoke-free, the haze gets thicker in upstairs pubs and places away from busy tourist locations.

Operators of traditionally smoke-filled mahjong parlours in particular say they have a tough time persuading customers not to light up.

“We are stuck between the customers and the government. We are the men in the middle,” Hui Chak-man, manager of Sham Shui Po Ho Kong Mahjong, said, adding he had given up trying to stop customers smoking after fruitless attempts.

“Now I only remind them about the consequence of smoking and say `you might want to go to the back alley’,” he said, referring to a fixed fine of HK$1,500 for people caught smoking or carrying a lit cigarette, cigar or pipe in no-smoking areas that will come into effect in September. “If they don’t listen, I will just let them be – I have fulfilled my duty.”

Of 210 complaints received and 15 summonses issued by the Health Department’s Tobacco Control Office since July 1, 112 complaints and 15 summonses related to mahjong parlours. In addition, 20 complaints and four summonses went to designated mahjong rooms in clubs.

The office received 68 complaints and issued three summonses for offences in bars. Massage centres and bathhouses followed, with nine and one complaints respectively.

The manager of the Tung Cheuk Association mahjong parlour in Tsim Sha Tsui, Peter Wong, said he could not afford to lose his customers. “But at the same time I can’t do them a favour by offering ashtrays now. What we can do is place a bucket outside our shop in the corridor of the shopping mall. What they do out there is none of our business.”

Post reporters found smoking pub-goers in Causeway Bay were moving upstairs to dodge inspectors. They also noticed that the farther away the bars were from the busiest streets and tourist areas, the more customers were breaking the ban.

In Lan Kwai Fong, no customers were seen smoking in bars or clubs on the ground floor. But a table in the front of a bar in Wyndham Street had one end sticking out into the street with an ashtray on it.

Drinkers said they had seen people smoking inside and facing outside and using the ashtray.

At another pub on the same street in Central, once known for its hookahs, or water-pipes, customers were sitting inside the shop smoking a hookah on a table top, half of which was also outdoors. But the operators said they no longer provided the devices and customers had brought the hookah and moved the table themselves.

As the clock ticked past 1am, two men were seen smoking at a bar in SoHo, Central.

When asked why smoking was allowed, the bartender said: “We officially close at 1am. They were the only customers left so I let them smoke. Before 1am, no smoking is allowed.”

The smoking customers said they were not worried by the smoking ban and had no intention of refraining from smoking in bars. But they said they usually avoided ground-floor venues and instead visited upstairs bars, where they were less likely to be caught.

A check of the strip of trendy bars along Knutsford Terrace in Tsim Sha Tsui found most people were complying with the ban and lighting up in outdoor seating areas.

Only one person was seen smoking inside. He entered a bar with a lit cigarette and took a quick puff as he made a beeline for the washroom.

Medical sector legislator Leung Ka-lau was not sure if fewer people smoked after the ban. Nevertheless, he reminded smokers that they faced a higher risk than non-smokers of sudden death from heart attack.

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