SCMP Friday, June 1, 2001

Where there's smoke, there's ire


You see them everywhere. Huddled on street corners, in office lobbies, outside shopping malls and in stairwells; fidgety figures clustered around ashtrays and litter bins, a symbol of the tie that binds them - nicotine. These are smokers, pariahs of the modern age, public health enemy No 1. But if the fag fraternity feels marginalised now, things are about to get worse.
The tobacco war is heating up. With the Asia-Pacific region a target of beleaguered cigarette manufacturers, left wheezing after being shut out of traditional markets by a litany of lawsuits and litigation, Hong Kong has emerged as a key battleground. At stake are the hearts, minds and lungs of the people.
The Government plans to ban smoking inside workplaces, restaurants, bars and other indoor public venues. The proposals have ignited a fierce debate, yet they may be just the thin end of a very big wedge for nicotine addicts. The Council on Smoking and Health (COSH) has outdoor areas in its sights next, making any place where people gather with restricted mobility, such as bus stops and escalators, smoke-free. But, having long argued that segregated smoking areas don't work indoors, it seems likely this would lead to a blanket ban outdoors.
The final frontier is the home. Untouchable? Not necessarily. For a start, those who have domestic helpers could find their homes classified as a workplace. Some anti-smokers are already campaigning to curb smoking in households where children live.
''Smoking at home harms children, and we should protect children,'' says Marcus Yu Yin-sum, executive director of COSH. ''At this stage it's not possible, otherwise people would have nowhere to smoke. We can't control smoking at home, but we can use education and publicity to discourage it. The ultimate goal is to create a smoke-free Hong Kong, but that will take years.''
In the question of where to draw the line between the rights of smokers and non-smokers, the frontline is permanently shifting. And it's the tobacco companies and their customers who are consistently fighting a rearguard action between successive retreats. Since tobacco control legislation was first passed in 1982, amendments have been made almost yearly and gradually extended bans from cinemas to banks, supermarkets and shopping malls.
The global trend towards no-smoking legislation began in the United States and Canada and has spread as far as Australia, India and South Africa, with differing results. If approved, Hong Kong's ban on smoking indoors would be among the most stringent in the world, tougher than Singapore which prohibits smoking in most indoor public places, but allows it in bars.
Some countries have had problems turning such laws into reality. New Delhi became the first Indian city to ban smoking in public in 1997, but the majority carried on lighting up. The ban collapsed, although there are plans to revive it. South Africa has seen widespread opposition to a nationwide smoke-free restaurant policy introduced this year.
But in other cities, especially in Canada, the US and Australia, the bans have largely succeeded. Public support in California has increased since its ban was introduced.
The Government's case is compelling. Medical studies estimate 5,500 people in the SAR die every year from the effects of smoking, mainly from lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema. Some of these fatalities never smoked a cigarette, they are the victims of second-hand smoke. Health officials say smoking is the single-largest preventable cause of death, and health bills to treat its victims are running close to $1 billion a year.
The proposed ban, which is being debated by legislators and can expect a bumpy passage before it is passed into law, would first target restaurants, bars and karaoke venues, allowing a six- or 12-month transition period, and gradually it will extend to nightclubs, bathhouses and mahjong parlours. While many smokers are sanguine about their diminishing domain, some view the suggested ban on restaurants and bars as a step too far. By collecting $16 duty from a $31 packet of cigarettes, the Government swells its coffers annually by more than $2.5 billion from tobacco sales, leading to charges of hypocrisy by tobacco buyers.
''I am very upset about it [the proposed ban],'' says bank executive Raymond Tong, drawing on a 15-centimetre long Havana stogie in the cloistered surroundings of Cohiba Cigar Divan in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. ''The Govern-ment is charging us tobacco tax, yet doesn't want to allow us anywhere to go and smoke. It's very unfair.''
The divan, opened in 1992, was Hong Kong's first. Owned by celebrity cigar smoker, David Tang, it is home to 40 customers each day. ''There is a social element to it, it's like a private club,'' says Tong, as suited executives nod in agreement, the air thick with the aroma of burning leaves.
Teddy Lam, the divan's manager, is aghast that his empire could soon be ranked as an illicit drug den. ''Everybody who comes here smokes, why shouldn't they be allowed?'' he says. ''I smoke seven cigars a day and doctors say my lung function is better than a non-smoker's.'' Across Central, in the down-at-heel Lin Heung Tea House, four middle-aged men are perched around a table next to the door. ''We have to sit here to avoid the smoke,'' says insurance broker James Wu, as a cleaner sweeps up discarded cigarette butts on the floor around him. ''The ban is necessary. Other people's smoke is slowly murdering us.''
But spit and dim-sum joints like Lin Heung fear a ban will cost revenue. The Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades has opposed the law, saying diners should decide. Its president David Ng Tak-lung argues ''wine drinking is the brother of smoking'' and warns bars will lose customers and hard cash.
Since July 1999, restaurants with 200 seats have been required by law to keep at least one-third of seats as a no-smoking zone. A small numbers of owners caught breaking the law were warned, but none have been prosecuted.
Some non-smokers say no-smoking areas in the same room are as ridiculous an idea as ''having a non-urinating section in a swimming pool''. A public opinion survey for COSH in 1999 showed three in four people think the law inadequate, and that 69 per cent support an all-out ban.
Almost half of the non-smokers in the survey reported discomfort or health problems, such as coughing, because of smoky restaurants. Twenty per cent said they would go to restaurants more often if there was no smoking, only three per cent would go less often.
Weekly no-smoking nights held last year at the Mexican restaurant Caramba on Elgin Street, Central, however, burned out after less than three months. ''We had a large number of American customers and I wanted to see how they'd support it,'' says Clayton Parker, managing director of Caramba's parent company, Eclipse Management. Parker is a New Yorker and believed that many Americans were in favour of smoke-free eating. ''But we probably offended more smokers than we made smokeless friends. We did not have a great response and business was no better.'' Parker, a non-smoker, believes proprietors should have discretion. ''It's strange that it should be regulated in a free-market economy. If there was a demand, there would be no-smoking restaurants.''
Austrian restaurant Mozart Stub'n in Central decided to ban smoking last month. ''It's a small restaurant and the way it smells destroys the taste of the food,'' says non-smoking owner Ernst Ruckendorfer. ''I have had so many customers pay the bill quickly after a meal and leave because of smoke,'' Most support the idea and business remains steady, he says, although about five per cent of diners have walked away. ''Most smokers don't mind because they can go outside to a private courtyard to have a cigarette,'' he adds, saying many happily use the spot.
Efforts abroad have had mixed responses, although most surveys have concluded smoking bans do not damage the entertainment business, especially restaurants. A study of 78 eateries in Sydney after smoking was banned in restaurants from last June 1 found initial resistance slowly petered out. Trade rose in 14 per cent of restaurants, while nine per cent reported a dip.
Melbourne, meanwhile, encouraged voluntary smoking bans. The study found more diners - about 50 per cent - created a fuss or lit up in prohibited areas than in Sydney, and more than half of smokers went elsewhere to eat. The study concluded blanket bans - since adopted in Melbourne - were more effective as they introduced a level playing field.
After California imposed its ban on smoking in bars and restaurants in 1998, the American Beverage Institute surveyed 300 bars and clubs and found that 59 per cent had seen business, while just six per cent reported an increase. Almost two-thirds said they had lost regular customers and about half reported a rise in customer fights and complaints. Bar staff at 60 per cent of the bars and clubs had lost tips, while 30 per cent lost their jobs or had their hours reduced.
But when it comes to the great cigarette debate, it appears there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Studies in New York City have varied. After one group of academics concluded that restaurant tills were jingling more, along came another bunch who said revenues were dropping.
Professor Stanton Glantz of the University of California San Francisco surveyed the first 15 North American cities - including those in California - that imposed a ban, and found restaurants were not losing out.
''There isn't any good evidence that it [a ban] is detrimental to the catering industry,'' says Dr Judith Mackay, an SAR-based World Health Organisation consultant on tobacco control.
Peter Tam, executive director of the Hong Kong Tobacco Institute, which represents major cigarette manufacturers, argues lifestyle habits of smokers cannot be ignored. ''The spirit is to have freedom of choice for people. We welcome sensible regulation but it must be enforcable and workable. We should not do something which is socially divisive.''
Tam urges a dialogue with caterers and says better ventilation and segregation could solve many problems.
But Mackay says the ''core issue'' is workers. About 150 non-smoking catering workers in Hong Kong die each year from heart disease or lung cancer caused by passive smoking, according to a study jointly carried out this year by American health consultant James Repace, the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University. Urine tests on 104 workers exposed to passive smoke found levels of cotinine - created when the body breaks down nicotine - were 5.5 times higher than normal, leading Repace to estimate between three and eight per cent of restaurant workers will die from passive smoking.
Working long hours in smoke-filled environments causes the most damage. Factories, offices and all other workplaces would be smoke-free under the proposals.
''I hate spending all day in a smoky room,'' complains Sally Leung, a secretary in a Kwun Tong sales office who says three of her four colleagues smoke up to 20 cigarettes each a day at work. ''I find it very uncomfortable, its hard to breathe. The disgusting smell stays on my clothes and in my hair. A ban would be good, but I doubt whether my colleagues would take any notice of it.''
Two studies have found high instances of respiratory illness in non-smokers exposed to smoke at work. The most recent, by Hong Kong University family medicine expert Professor Lam Tai-hing, found one in seven workers suffered problems solely because of passive smoking. Another, by Dr Sarah McGhee of the University of Hong Kong's department of medicine, concluded 76 per cent of workers do not smoke, but almost half (48 per cent) of those had to put up with second-hand smoke.
McGhee worked out that it not only meant more frequent visits to the doctor, but poorer quality of life and financial harm: Workers spend $100 million a year on illnesses caused by passive smoking, while employers pay $45 million and the Government $12 million.
Mackay says: ''For workers, working in a smoky factory is like working with dangerous chemicals or asbestos, the Government makes laws to protect them.''
With so many small factories and offices, policing a workplace ban will be difficult, admits Yu, from COSH. But, he says, employees who suffer from second-hand smoke will at least have legal protection. Whether employees would blow the whistle is another matter.
Smoking is outlawed on passenger ferries but this is often ignored on the outside deck of boats serving the outlying islands. Since smoking was banned in shopping malls on July 1, 1998, not one person has been prosecuted for breaking the law, a point which peeves Yu. He says enforcement is not taken seriously by the Government. ''With further restrictions we should ensure the Government is prepared to step up enforcement action, otherwise it will be seen as a mockery.''
The Tobacco Control Office (TCO) has just 10 staff and no power to prosecute. Even if the new legislation goes through. Hong Kong's proposals puts the onus on management to enforce bans, while police would be a last resort for offenders who refused to stub out.
Phil Murphy, non-smoking manager of Phi-b club in Central, says: ''I don't like having smoke blown in my face, but if there was a law, I wouldn't want to be the one who has to enforce it. People would just flout it.''
Mackay, however, believes smokers would comply with a complete ban. ''If I see someone smoking in a lift I don't make a citizen's arrest, I point to the sign and ask them to put it out, and they do.
''This law will not be there to put smokers in jail. It's to change opinion. It may take a few fines to get the message across, like it did with wearing safety belts in cars. Now everybody wears them.''
Smokers who light up in restricted areas can be fined up to $5,000, although magistrates usually impose just a few hundred dollars.
Ventilation helped provide Phi-b with a solution to its initial smoke-logging, but Mackay says ''dilution is not the solution'', saying 50 per cent of air is recirculated.
Mackay says she does not object to enclosed smoking rooms in airport lounges. ''People coming off a long-haul flight may be desperate for a puff,'' she concedes. But, she adds, building such rooms in existing buildings is difficult. Nor does the idea fit in with Yu's vision of a smoke-free Hong Kong.
Back at Cohiba, Tong is finishing his hour-long lunch break, time consumed smoking his favoured Havana with like-minded friends. ''You cannot enjoy a cigar on the street corner,'' he says. ''If you take the tobacco tax, you must allow us somewhere to smoke. Otherwise, you should be done with it and simply ban tobacco.''
But Tong believes the ban will become law. If it does, his favourite haven will vanish in a puff of smoke.
Email Neil Western at .