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Govt should ensure smoking ban is being properly implemented

Over recent years, great strides have been made in the fight to limit smoking in public places in Hong Kong. This fight is being conducted to reduce the opportunities for smokers to light up, and thereby perhaps save their lives from constantly indulging their deadly addiction. It is also conducted to protect those people located nearby, who may not smoke, from the harmful — indeed from the life-threatening — effects of cigarette smoke reaching them from others.

It is heartening to note from recent reports that the incidence of smoking is generally being reduced — meaning that there are apparently somewhat fewer smokers in Hong Kong than there were a decade or more ago. That reduction, of course, must include the sad statistic of the many regular smokers who have since died from serious illnesses caused by their regular tobacco intake.

There is little to feel complacent about however, as many Hong Kong people continue to damage their own health and that of others near them, by lighting up. An especially lamentable sight is that of youngsters, even schoolchildren, taking up the deadly addiction, which will more than likely kill them before they die from national causes.

The advent of e-cigarettes has provided an alternative to smoking the more dangerous real tobacco products. The jury is still out, however, on whether or not e-cigarettes themselves present a danger to health. They are a comparatively new invention, so it is too early to be able to judge what a lifetime’s intake of e-cigarette smoke might or might not do to harm a person’s lungs and health. Let’s remember that it took many years of research before a confirmed link was established between smoking tobacco in cigarettes and severe damage to a smoker’s health. These days, everyone knows that smoking can kill you; yet many people continue to smoke and others take up the habit — which soon leads to a lifetime’s nicotine addiction.

It is now against the law for people to smoke inside a bar, restaurant or coffee shop in Hong Kong. However, you may commonly see customers sitting near the open frontage of such places, puffing away. Some are located actually within the establishment as they do so, meaning they are seated inside the place. The noxious smoke they emit thus blows in and poisons those customers seated within, as well as polluting the air just outside the place.

Others are technically outside, but positioned so near the place as to make little difference. They are facilitated in doing so by the establishment providing tables and ash trays just outside their open frontages. The prohibition needs to be extended, to outlaw smoking within five meters of a place’s entrance or frontage. Large and clear NO SMOKING signs should be required to be placed near the entrances of all bars and restaurants — preferably showing graphic pictures of diseased lungs and the other horrors that smoking causes.

Some others brazenly indulge their smoking habit well inside the place and, to their shame, some bars and other establishments provide ashtrays on every internal table, to facilitate (and really to encourage) breaking the law by having their customers smoke inside the place. The law needs to be strengthened by prescribing hefty fines for both the smoker and the establishment’s owner for such infringements. Presently, too few prosecutions are initiated against smokers and none against owners.

It is said that the price of freedom is constant vigilance. Similarly, the eradication of smoking inside Hong Kong’s bars and restaurants will happen only if firmer steps are taken to enforce the laws prohibiting it. That means that there need to be more governmental staff assigned as Tobacco Control Office inspectors; many more spot-checks need to be conducted on bars and restaurants; no verbal warnings should be given. Instead each infringement should be prosecuted, according to the law. Only a zero-tolerance approach, prosecuting every offender who so breaks the law and landing him with a hefty fine — and that includes the place’s owner — would have the desired deterrent effect.

For those frequent offenders among bar and restaurant owners, consideration should be made to rescinding their license to operate. That danger to their business would turn the tide, obliging them to do everything possible to stop people smoking on their premises, rather than — as now — some of them turning a blind eye to, or even encouraging, smoking on their premises.

Only through uncompromising law enforcement can smoking inside (or too near) a bar or restaurant really be brought to an end.

The writer is a seasoned Hong Kong commentator, who has lost close family members to the deadly effects of cigarette smoking.

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