SCMP Saturday, May 19, 2001

Smoke and hot air

At last, the Government has come up with a set of proposed legislative amendments to better protect residents from health hazards posed by smokers. But officials now need to summon enough political will to ensure the measures are quickly implemented.
At present, restaurants with more than 200 seats are obliged to designate a third of their area as smoking free. But this regulation has had little practical effect, given the crowded conditions in most Chinese restaurants. In reality, the smoking areas are not physically insulated and there is no separate ventilation system. Numerous smaller establishments simply slip through the net.
If the Government has its way, the Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance will be tightened to impose a total ban on smoking in restaurants and in most other indoor public places. These include offices, shops, factories, bars, karaoke lounges and, subsequently, bathhouses, nightclubs and mahjong parlours. The managements of these venues will be given the task of enforcing the law.
Several lawmakers have rejected these proposals out of hand with some, such as Tommy Cheung Yu-yan who represents the catering sector, saying their opposition is in their sector's best interests. Cinema operators used to have similar reservations, but there is nothing to suggest the ban has driven moviegoers away. If anything, the reverse is probably true.
In Asia, Cathay Pacific was one of the first airlines to impose a total smoking ban on its aircraft. Again, there is no evidence the ban has resulted in any loss in business, and other airlines have followed suit.
A few years ago, Vancouver introduced similar laws as the Government is proposing despite fierce opposition from restaurant operators. But there has been no evidence of any decline in people eating out. Some eateries have even recorded better turnovers, and other major Canadian cities, such as Richmond, have since followed Vancouver's lead.
The fact that almost seven million residents are crammed into an area of little more than 1,000 square kilometres gives Hong Kong even stronger justification than other major metropolises for keeping its public venues smoke free.
Apart from the health hazards for non-smoking customers, restaurant workers are even more vulnerable, being forced to become passive smokers. The Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health has recently released the findings of a study which suggests restaurant workers are more prone to heart diseases and lung cancer than the population as a whole. So a widespread ban would offer restaurant owners a legal cushion against possible lawsuits from their employees for damages arising from an unhealthy work environment. Similar cases have already been lodged, notably by air stewardesses in the United States, and the potential liability of restaurant operators in this area is astronomical.
Although Mr Cheung's attempt to defend what he believes to be the best interests of his constituents is understandable, the reaction of some other legislators has bordered on the hysterical. Smoker Andrew Wong Wang-fat screamed that the initiative would reduce smokers to the same level as drug-takers. "If the Government is to push ahead with its plan with force, why doesn't it suggest a total ban like that on drugs?" Mr Wong asked the Legislative Council's health services panel.
Despite mounting medical evidence to the contrary, Mr Wong insisted there was no proven link between smoking and lung cancer and other health problems. But he is arguing an indefensible point which tobacco manufacturers have long since conceded. And he has conveniently overlooked the fact that smokers are putting not just their own health at risk but also that of others.
In this respect, inconsiderate smokers who choose to light up in public are arguably more selfish than drug-users. If people such as Mr Wong insist on slowly committing suicide, there is little a government can do about it. However, when smokers' behaviour jeopardises innocent people who just happen to be near them, the authorities are duty-bound to intervene.
No matter how much the Government raises tobacco taxes, the proceeds could hardly make up for the costs the community as a whole has to spend on the medical consequences of smoking. Indeed, the Government has been too complacent about this for too long, with the social costs caused by this irritating habit of some being shouldered by all taxpayers, be they smokers or non-smokers.
Legislator Li Fung-ying, who represents the labour functional constituency, has also done a disservice to those she is supposed to represent. She is worried that the onus will be put on staff to implement any ban. But while the practical issues about how to enforce the law do, of course, need to be thoroughly considered, the immediate priority should be to lay down the principle of protecting those who want to avoid the adverse effects of nicotine. Ms Li's negative attitude only risks clouding the issue and possibly even derailing the Government's proposals.
The public has three months to comment on the recommended amendments. That means the relevant legislation cannot be introduced into Legco until at least the start of the next legislative year in October. In view of the short-sighted opposition of some councillors, the bill is unlikely to sail smoothly through the council's bills committee.
And even if the draft law is enacted, restaurants, pubs and karaoke lounges would be granted a grace period of at least six months, while the new regulations would not become effective in workplaces for an even longer period. All this provides ample time to iron out an acceptable way of enforcing the ban.
Some have suggested that restaurants should be divided into smoking and non-smoking categories. But this is impractical since, given the concerns within the catering industry, most would then apply for smoking status. The few remaining smoke-free restaurants would be left to compete on an unequal footing, at least in the short term. Such a half-hearted effort would defeat the purpose of an anti-smoking campaign.
What cannot be compromised is the right of non-smokers to a healthy environment. The moment a smoker opts to light up in a public place, it ceases to be a private matter.
There is nothing tyrannical about the Government legislating on such a clear and present threat to public health.
Albert Cheng King-hon ( ) is a broadcaster and publisher.