Smoking-ban culprits should pay for help
Helping smokers to quit improves their health and saves lives. It also reduces the substantial burden smokers place on the health budget. A proposed change to a bill introducing a fixed penalty for lighting up in no-smoking areas therefore deserves serious consideration. The current smoking ban provides only for offenders to be summonsed to court, where they may be fined up to HK$5,000 - but are usually fined just HK$500 to HK$600.
The bill currently before the Legislative Council, and expected to pass easily, will instead impose a fixed fine of HK$1,500, similar to the spot fine for littering. Now, Democrat Andrew Cheng Kar-foo proposes giving offenders a choice under the fixed-penalty system. They would be able to either pay the fine or enter a programme to help them quit. The proposal is worth looking into, but some principles and details must first be worked out to make it feasible.
The user-pays principle - or rather offender pays - must be of uppermost importance. Taxpayers should not be asked to fund efforts to help smoking ban offenders quit. Some form of government subsidy is probably inevitable, however, since most programmes that help smokers to quit cost more than HK$1,500. But the burden on the public coffers should not be high because the Department of Health already runs quit-smoking clinics. Expanding the programme to include offenders should not cost too much.
Increasing the tobacco tax may be one way to offset the new cost. It may also be possible to convince some offenders to pay more than HK$1,500 - the proposed fixed penalty amount - to quit because it is in their interest to do so. Many longtime smokers have tried repeatedly to quit and may be encouraged to try again under a well-run plan. But the proposed penalty system, if it goes ahead, must not be run at the expense of existing anti-smoking and health services. The government rightly devotes millions each year to operate clinics to help smokers to quit, as well as funding education and research. Every effort should be made to help smokers quit and the offenders must realise they are being made to pay for stop-smoking sessions as part of a penalty for their law-breaking and antisocial behaviour.