More must be done in the fight against smoking

Updated: 2014-12-24 06:08

By Paul Surtees(HK Edition)

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The recent news that the city authorities in Beijing will, from next June, ban all smoking within indoor public places and offices may yet inspire a nationwide prohibition along the same lines. It gives us cause, here in Hong Kong, to consider whether our current legislation to limit smoking and other enforcement activities are effective enough.

A year ago, a China Daily (Hong Kong Edition) opinion piece drew attention to a glaring oversight in Hong Kong's anti-smoking laws. That regrettable legislative shortcomings still exist, means that many non-smokers are still subjected to involuntarily inhaling noxious fumes emitted by smokers.

Some estimates put the number of deaths of Hong Kong people, directly attributable to their active smoking, at over 6,000 a year; with more than a 1,000 more estimated to die here each year from the toxic effects of second-hand (i.e. passive) smoking. So, seeking to reduce the prevalence of smoking in Hong Kong is a life-and-death issue. This is not to mention the huge health costs of treating the many people made seriously ill by the long-term life-threatening effects of smoking.

The widespread provision of special smoking areas, absurdly set up by many Hong Kong bars and restaurants, should be prohibited immediately. The original idea of banning smoking inside bars, restaurants and coffee shops was to seek to discourage smokers inhaling quite so often in the hope it would also minimize damage to smokers' health and unpleasantness to non-smoking customers. It was also to provide staff members working there with a healthy, smoke-free environment.

Sadly, all three objectives are failing, because of the smoking areas set up in close proximity. Smoke from these areas readily blows inside. Thus the present law is ineffective. Many other legal jurisdictions around the world prohibit smoking within several meters of a building's entrance. Hong Kong's regulations need to be strengthened to incorporate that much-needed and hitherto-overlooked restriction. The same may be said for those ashtrays inappropriately situated immediately outside the doorways to office buildings, obliging those entering to pass through a smokescreen to get access.

The prevalence of smoking is unevenly distributed around this city. In some of the poorer areas, almost every adult male seems to have a cigarette dangling from his mouth, even when working. In other areas of town that is not so obviously the case. This skewed distribution suggests the welcome possibility that were the Hong Kong government to greatly increase the duty on tobacco products, then that economic disincentive alone would very likely make smoking less affordable to our poorer citizens, if not unreachable altogether, but their health would improve considerably.

More must be done in the fight against smoking

Hong Kong's Tobacco Control Office, although it does inspect premises and prosecute individuals caught illegally smoking inside public buildings, is clearly overstretched. It appears to be too short of staffers to provide enough spot-checks, because smokers can these days often be seen lighting up within many smoking-prohibited areas. Even so, there were 27,000 tobacco control patrols last year and 8,500 prosecutions. Despite so many prosecutions, the deterrent effect of prosecution is clearly not yet strong enough. Higher fines must be imposed.

The regulations could also be strengthened by making the company where such illegal smoking is permitted responsible for controlling it - and by fining the company in cases where they do not. Tireless anti-smoking activist, World Lung Association Adviser Professor Judith Mackay comments that such a change would oblige the owners of these businesses to take active steps to limit smoking, rather than - as now - having too many of them actively encouraging smoking in the ways mentioned above. The destruction to the health of Hong Kong people, caused by the deadly tobacco habit, can and should be limited by increasing duty to make tobacco products more expensive (and therefore not so readily affordable to many), by enacting tougher legislation to stop smoking next to entrances and open frontages and by causing the restaurant or bar ownership to be held responsible (and finable) for illegal smoking on their premises. Far higher fines also needed for individual illegal smokers.

Such enhanced measures would serve to limit the still-prevalent incidence of illnesses caused by smoking in Hong Kong, working towards better health for all. The cost of not taking these measures will be a continuing death toll from smoking of at least 20 Hong Kong people every day.

The author is a university lecturer, commentator and adviser to the Hong Kong Federation of the Blind.

(HK Edition 12/24/2014 page10)