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It’s time to extend the smoking ban in HK

When people walk along Nathan Road in Kowloon or Des Voeux Road on Hong Kong Island, they inevitably come into contact with many smokers, puffing away. These innocent non-smokers have no escape as the paths are so narrow. They are forced to unwillingly inhale second-hand smoke. This is a serious problem because many people die each year from inhaling poisonous second-hand smoke.

It is time the Hong Kong government set an example for all mainland cities and cities worldwide. The government should enact laws to prohibit smoking on streets to reduce air pollution and deaths caused by smoking-related diseases — including lung cancer. Smokers can smoke at home if they wish. They can still enjoy the freedom to smoke in private. But their freedom to smoke should never infringe the rights of people who don’t want to inhale second-hand smoke.

Banning people from smoking on the streets might sound drastic. But only tougher measures are going to produce results. Tobacco companies have plenty of funds to lobby legislators so they will take a softer approach when dealing with smoking. But it is time lawmakers did something for Hong Kong people on this issue. In fact, they and the next generation will benefit considerably from these new laws. After all, who does not want to breathe clean air?

Hong Kong already bans smoking in public places such as cinemas, sports grounds and restaurants. People who violate these laws are subject to fines. Beijing adopted similar rules on June 1. All indoor public places and many outdoor ones have to be absolutely smoke-free, which includes primary and high schools and hospitals which treat women or children. Thousands of inspectors will be tasked with the job of inspecting venues and issuing fines to violators. Beijing’s latest move has won praise from inside and outside the country.

Central government figures show that there are 300 million smokers on the mainland. One million Chinese die from smoking-related illnesses such as lung cancer every year. Even on the mainland a million is not a small number. So why can’t people just kick the habit or seek counseling to treat the addiction?

Smoking is also a serious health hazard around the world; there is little doubt about this. Just look at places far from Hong Kong and the mainland. In the UK, for example, women’s life expectancy in 2012 (latest figures available) is 5 weeks shorter than in 2011. UK’s Faculty of Public Health noted that the shorter life expectancy among women was the result of “more smoking”.

Also in 2012 (latest figures available), lung cancer killed 11,692 people in Taipei, the Taiwan government’s health promotion administration revealed. The number of deaths rose 6 percent from 2011. Lung cancer was caused by air pollution, smoking and second-hand smoke, the government health agency noted.

In Hong Kong, the Tobacco Control Office of the Department of Health works hard to enforce the non-smoking laws in public places such as restaurants. It conducted 29,000 inspections in 2014, a 6 percent rise from 2013. It issued a total of 8,000 fixed penalty notices and summonses to offenders. Smokers who are caught are fined HK$1,500. But what the Tobacco Control Office does isn’t enough.

The government should give Hong Kong people a gift to celebrate July 1, the date of reunification, by widening the smoking ban and proclaiming new legislation to stop smoking near pedestrians. This will save lives. Moreover, Hong Kong people will support this initiative.

The author is a veteran journalist and an adjunct professor at Shue Yan University.

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