Legal loophole is blamed as smokers defy ban
What smoking ban? A year after the practice was outlawed in Hong Kong's entertainment venues, customers are still lighting up openly. Proprietors, free of any responsibility for enforcing the ban, ignore it or say there is little they can do.
Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world that does not fine venue operators as well as smokers, and academics say this is one reason smokers continue to break the rules.
But the government says prosecutions are not the objective - it wants to motivate smokers to quit.
James Middleton, chairman of Clear the Air's anti-tobacco committee, questioned the sincerity of the government in tobacco control. 'The government doesn't really want a smoking ban: it earns too much from tax on the sale of cigarettes,' he said.
Tobacco Control Office head Dr Ronald Lam Man-kin said in an earlier interview that tax earnings and prosecutions were not their main focus in stepping up anti-tobacco efforts. 'We just want to motivate more smokers to quit, for the benefit of themselves and others.'
The smoking ban was extended on July 1 last year to six types of entertainment establishments - bars, mahjong houses, private clubs, massage parlours, saunas and nightclubs.
The Tobacco Control Office, which has 99 officers enforcing the ban, has received 6,900 complaints this year and carried out 10,200 inspections so far this year.
By the end of May more than 3,000 smokers had been issued with fixed-penalty tickets for breaching the rules but none of these were in saunas or nightclubs. Of these, 937 cases were in amusement game centres, 478 in shopping malls, 237 in restaurants, 365 in mahjong parlours and 83 in bars.
Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee, who heads the University of Hong Kong's School of Nursing and runs quit-smoking programmes, said it was a 'loophole' that owners were not punished.
'If you fine the owners, they will certainly make the most effort to stop customers from smoking on their properties. But under the current policy, they would not suffer any consequences,' she said.
British owners could face a fine of up to GBP2,500 (HK$29,100) if they fail to prevent people from smoking in their bars. Owners in New Zealand face a fine of up to NZ$4,000 (HK$21,500). In Queensland, Australia, restaurant owners must stop offering food and service if a customer fails to comply with the smoking ban.
But local owners say it is hard to stop customers from smoking.
Hong Kong Nightclub Association chairman Mak Heung said while his staff did their best to ask smokers to go outside, it did not always work. 'Some customers who are drunk may turn violent.'
A Department of Health spokesman said bar managers were already empowered to take quick action against smoking violations.
Apart from the Tobacco Control Office, other agencies empowered to prosecute smokers seem less than enthusiastic in doing so.
Some 3,330 officers of the departments of Food and Environmental Hygiene, Leisure and Cultural Services (LCSD) and Housing were given the power in September to prosecute smokers who broke the rules in premises under their management.
The three departments have issued only 83 fixed-penalty tickets so far this year. The LCSD, which has 2,200 officers, had just two prosecutions.
Additional reporting by Richard Macauley
The Tobacco Control Office has 99 officers enforcing the ban
The number of people issued with tickets for breaching the rules for the first five months of this year was about: 3,000
In Hong Kong
Aug 1 Limit on number of duty-free cigarettes cut from three packets to 19 sticks to take effect
July 1 Smoking ban in bars, private clubs, nightclubs, bathhouses, massage establishments and mahjong parlours
Feb 25 Tobacco tax raised by 50 per cent
Sep 1 Smoking ban extended to 48 covered transport interchanges
Nov 1 Total ban of all tobacco advertisements
Jan 1 Smoking ban in all indoor areas, except entertainment parlours
Oct 27 Pictorial warnings on cigarette packets
By comparison ... in Singapore
Smoking is prohibited in most indoor locations, including cinemas, shopping malls, offices, bus interchanges and shelters, swimming pools, sports stadiums
July 1 Ban extended to entertainment outlets, including pubs, bars, discos and nightclubs
July 1 Smoking banned in non air-conditioned places such as coffee shops, cafes, canteens, restaurants, hawker centres
Smoking prohibited in air-conditioned food shops
SOURCES: HONG KONG TOBACCO CONTROL OFFICE, NATIONAL ENVIRONMENT AGENCY OF SINGAPORE