Bars ignoring smoking ban taking our business, other pubs complain
Popular bars on Hong Kong Island are sick of abiding by the smoking ban while competitors in other parts of the city ignore it, and are demanding the government step in.
The owners claim that because they follow the law they are losing customers - while most others ignore the ban and are escaping with their profits intact.
Smoking legislation in Hong Kong, unlike jurisdictions elsewhere in the world, punishes smokers, not bars, for breaches. Rather than bar-owners facing losing their licences for failing to stop patrons from smoking, it is the individual smoker who faces prosecution. This means hundreds of bars are allowing smoking to continue as normal.
The ban was first imposed at the start of 2007 for statutory no-smoking areas. A blanket ban on smoking in all indoor public places was introduced on July 1 last year.
'The government has seen fit to pass a smoking ban, yet do not maintain a level playing field, with only random enforcement,' J. R. Robertson, managing director of El Grande Holdings, said.
The company has a number of bars and restaurants in the city, including the East End Brewery bars in Causeway Bay and Quarry Bay, which have been badly affected by the smoking ban. The bar in Causeway Bay has been the worst hit, with a 35 per cent drop in profit.
Robertson said the legislation had to change - which he thought was unlikely - or the law must be enforced across the board. 'Bars here have experienced a huge downturn in business, directly related to the loss of the smoking exemption, but other bars have benefited as they completely ignore the smoking ban. It's the honest law-abiding people that are getting the brunt of it.'
Kevin McBarron, owner of the Canny Man in Wan Chai, said he would have kept his customers if they knew that they couldn't go around the corner to another bar to smoke.
'It's an ineffectual ban that's actually penalising people who are trying to voluntarily support it,' he said. 'When any government writes bad law, people can ignore it. Unfortunately for me, because I rent my place from the Wharney Guang Dong Hotel, it's all very much by the book here. I don't have the same flexibility as other places.'
McBarron said his business was down 40 per cent compared to the previous year and he has had to lay off two staff members.
Stanley Lam, manager of the Dickens Bar in the Excelsior Hotel, said business was down at least 20 per cent.
'It's not fair when other bars can ignore the smoking ban, but we can't do anything about it,' he said.
The Tobacco Control Office said it does not conduct random checks and only responds to a specific complaint. 'We conduct investigations and unannounced inspections, including overnight operations, weekends, and holidays, in response to complaints. From time to time we also conduct joint operations with the police,' a Department of Health spokesman said.
The Sunday Morning Post visited bars in Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui last week and found customers and staff smoking freely. One owner of a TST bar was happy to let people smoke because he was not breaking the law.
'We do not have the authority to stop people smoking,' he said. 'I tell them that if they are caught smoking they could be fined - that's all I can do. By law we are doing nothing wrong. About 85 per cent of my customers smoke. If I didn't allow it I would have to close.'
A Causeway Bay bar owner said it was all down to culture. 'It is part of our Chinese lifestyle to smoke. Cigarettes are cheap in Hong Kong and it's how we socialise, nothing will change this. I don't care if people light up inside my premises because they are all good customers - there won't be any complaints,' he said.
The government has proposed measures to tackle smoking in the city, including limiting the number of duty-free cigarettes that an arriving traveller can bring in to 19.
Some bars in central areas flout the smoking ban. In places such as Central and Wan Chai, smokers stand outside premises, but even inside these places people are lighting up because the owners are happy to turn a blind eye.
This happens in establishments above ground level. Instead of going down to the street to light up, customers are allowed to smoke in corridors or out of windows to save the hassle of going outside.
The Tobacco Control Office said that between July 1, 2009, and January 31, 2010, only seven summonses have been or will be issued for smoking in bars; in addition, 53 fixed-penalty tickets have been issued. The office has 99 tobacco control inspectors to enforce the smoking ban.
People caught smoking must pay a HK$1,500 fine within 21 days.