Indoor smoking abounds as venues have nothing to lose
In the early hours of Saturday morning a 22nd-floor bar in a narrow tower in Mong Kok is as busy as it gets. Karaoke fills the ears, Chivas-green tea fills the mouth and cigarette smoke fills the nose.
The majority of the crowd in the bar - university students or younger - are smokers and, high up above the streets of Mong Kok, they have no qualms about lighting up in the poorly ventilated and dimly lit room.
Today marks the first anniversary of a smoking ban, which punishes those who smoke in bars, nightclubs and many other public places.
But a year since the full implementation of the ban, it is not only the Mong Kok bar that is still filled with smoke. Bars, amusement game centres, parks and restaurants are just a few of the places where smokers can still be found puffing away.
Hong Kong is one of the only places in the world that fines its smokers for breaking no-smoking rules and not the establishment's owner. In Britain, the smoking ban makes bar owners directly responsible for smokers' actions by putting their licences at risk if smokers are found repeatedly flouting the ban on their premises.
In Hong Kong, it is not only customers who fail to show an appreciation of the ban; a year after the regulation was introduced, cafe and bar owners and managers also take a hands-off approach to it.
Alex Ng Wing-keung, the manager of a Yau Ma Tei cafe, said business had not been affected much as a result of the smoking ban, but he could still not see the need for a ban. 'I've seen my revenue drop around 10 per cent, but I haven't lost too many smoking customers because I have a smoking area outside,' he said.
Staff have nevertheless handed ashtrays to customers when the cafe has been quiet.
'A lot of young customers still ask staff at the cafe if they can smoke,' the manager said. 'They know the ban exists, but they ask because they also know a great deal of cafes and bars just don't care.'
What was more, he said, the smoking ban had made walking outside even worse. 'Air pollution has always been bad outside but now you have bins which pour out thick smoke thanks to the smokers who are forced outside to smoke on street corners.'
One smoker in Causeway Bay said the only way for the government to stop young people smoking was to raise the price of cigarettes dramatically. 'To me, smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol are the same thing. A ban alone will never stop people smoking in bars,' she said. 'Even in restaurants, people will always want to smoke after a meal.'
Such views from both smokers and establishments alike could explain why all drinkers in the upstairs bar in Mong Kok will go home smelling like smokers.
Out of sight and out of mind, bars such as these - and often less inconspicuous venues also - will continue to allow smoking as long as the financial benefits for owners appear to outweigh the risks.
One year since the ban took effect
3,250 fixed-fine notices issued after
10,200 venues inspected (to May 31 2010) by
99 Tobacco Control Office inspectors and 3,330 officers from the Housing, Food and Environmental Hygiene, Leisure and Cultural Services departments
11.8 % decline in the number of smokers (2008)*
*Last comprehensive survey conducted
Venue managers are not legally responsible for preventing people from smoking, but they can still ask smokers to leave if they choose
HK$1,500 fixed fine for anyone who smokes or carries a lighted cigarette, cigar or pipe in no-smoking areas or on public transport
Managers of premises where smoking is not permitted have a duty to enforce the ban, including putting up signs, and face penalties if they do not do so. They must ask smokers to stop smoking or leave the premises
S$200 (HK$1,100) fine if people found smoking in prohbited venues, but if convicted in court the offender may be liable to a S$1,000 fine
Under the law, anyone who hinders, obstructs, threatens, abuses, molests or assaults the manager in the performance of their duty is liable on conviction to a fine of up to S$1,000, a jail term not exceeding six months, or both
SOURCES: HONG KONG TOBACCO CONTROL OFFICE, NATIONAL ENVIRONMENT AGENCY OF SINGAPORE