SCMP Saturday, October 6, 2001

A smokescreen over ban


Hong Kong saw a rowdy protest on Tuesday of several thousand people against the Government's proposed ban on smoking in all indoor catering premises. The protesters claimed the ban would result in a substantial loss of business, closure of food and beverages outlets, and job cuts.
Although I share the catering industry's anxiety about their business prospects, I hope the industry will have the courage to face the real cause for their decline in business - rather than trying to make a scapegoat out of a public-health measure still a long way from being put in place - and vent its anger at an unpalatable reality.
The reality faced by the catering industry has been harsh - four lean years in a row as Hong Kong has never really recovered from the economic downturn that began at the end of 1997. Most people never felt the benefits of last year's short-lived recovery, nor did it trickle down to the retail level, including the catering industry.
To add insult to injury, there has been a significant change in the spending habits of Hong Kong people. As working across the border has become a common feature many people's jobs, it is only natural for those who are spending a considerable amount of time on the mainland to spend money there. Not only does this mean that part of their spending power is absorbed on the mainland, once they have got used to prices there everything in Hong Kong seems too expensive.
Their weekends in Hong Kong are then more likely to be spent watching television at home rather than dining out. Worse still, they may start taking their family to the mainland for weekends and holidays. The huge price differences and the convenience of access have caused a crippling loss of revenue for the catering industry and leakage of business across the border.
This has nothing to do with a yet-to-materialise ban on smoking. Neither do the economic consequences of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, which may adversely affect the business of the catering industry even further. So the real question is whether the introduction of a ban on smoking would further affect the business of the already hard-hit catering industry.
The industry is protesting as if such a ban would be introduced tomorrow. But anyone with a fair understanding of how laws are enacted knows there is no question of the ban being introduced now, if "now" means tomorrow, next year or even the year after that.
As the public consultation on the proposed ban has only just ended, it is likely to be at least the end of the year before the Government reports to the Legislative Council on the findings of this exercise. Then there will be another round of discussion both inside and outside Legco.
It is only after this that a bill will begin to drafted, a process which usually takes six to nine months before it is ready for Legco. By then it will already be the second half of 2002, and since it will take some time for Legco to form a bills committee to scrutinise the proposed legislation - and for this body to complete its work - it is unrealistic to expect the bill to be passed before the second half of 2003.
Even then, there is a grace period before any new law comes into force, which may last for as long as two or three years for a difficult issue such as this. If that is the case, the proposed ban would not be fully implemented until the end of 2005, or perhaps even 2006.
And if the economy does not improve in the four or five years before then, and the catering industry is unable to effectively address the real cause of its problems, then there will be very little of the industry left to salvage, regardless of whether or not a smoking ban is imposed.
The catering industry based its claim that a ban would adversely affect them on an economic assessment commissioned by the Catering Industry Association. But it has been reported that this assessment was at least partly funded by the tobacco industry, a claim association chairman and Legco member representing the industry, Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, has not denied.
Such funding calls into question the objectivity of the study. And if the industry continues to quote its conclusions as if they are established facts, it should fully disclose to the public the financial involvement of the tobacco industry and also release the methodology and raw data for auditing by independent experts, in the established tradition of the scientific community.
Economic gloom should not be the excuse for abandoning objective reasoning, because it is only through this that we can come to a real understanding of problems, seek to solve them, and lift ourselves out of the present malaise. The Government has to do all it can to get to the facts of the smoking issue and encourage the community to do the same. To do this, it must not reward irrational behaviour or the dissemination of misinformation by going back on a correct proposal that is supported by an overwhelming majority of the public. Any repeated failure to act in this way would make Hong Kong ungovernable.
If the SAR cannot compete with the mainland on price, it must do so on the added value of its goods and services. The added value Hong Kong can provide is an assurance of the quality and safety of food, a cleaner and healthier environment where food is consumed and fair treatment of customers.
Adding value to Hong Kong products is a continuing process, and the present downturn in our economy is no excuse to stop doing this. On the contrary, it is time to protect this process and increase its cost-efficiency. Only through continuous improvement can Hong Kong develop its market niche and compete not merely on price alone.
The catering industry has spoken out against regulations it claims would adversely affect the business environment. But using the same logic, it might be possible to argue for the operations of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to be suspended, since the ICAC takes an important tool away from businesses - namely bribery. By the same reasoning, police action to curb vice activities should also stop because clamping down on vice establishments can affect the business of the nearby catering outlets.
If Hong Kong were to accept these kinds of arguments, then our future would be unthinkable. We would be sinking Hong Kong's last rescue raft. The name of this raft is the rule of law and I pray that Hong Kong will have the wisdom to keep this rescue raft afloat.
Dr Lo Wing-lok is a legislator representing the medical sector.