A smoking ban? We are not being serious

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 July, 2010, 12:00am

We hear there is a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. It says so in our law books, and we seem to recall a long debate about the legislation before it was passed and extended to all entertainment venues a year ago. But someone forgot to tell the smokers.

That is not to say the law has been a complete failure. In the first five months of the year, 3,250 people were issued tickets for violating smoking laws. That indicates the 99 specially designated tobacco control officers were busy, but breaking down the figures shows that it was not in our restaurants, bars and clubs. There were just 365 violations in mahjong parlours, 237 in restaurants, 83 in bars and 30 in private clubs. And in nightclubs or saunas? None. Why isn't the law working? It is not working for the simple reason that owners are not liable for violations of the law on their premises. Correcting this flaw would make all the difference, as it has for underage drinking.

These numbers are baffling for people who go to karaoke clubs, bars and nightclubs or play mahjong. Clouds of cigarette smoke can often hang overhead. Officers are rarely, if ever, seen. This is evidence of the government's lack of commitment to enforcing the law.

Authorities clearly did not have their priorities right when they were drawing up the legislation. And legislators were not putting the health of citizens foremost when they reviewed and approved it. Smoking and second-hand smoke cause thousands of deaths each year and cost billions of dollars in medical bills and lost productivity. By putting companies' worries about profits ahead of health and well-being, a grave disservice has been done to our community.

It does not take much effort to see how poorly the ban is working. A visit to our entertainment districts shows up the failings. Some bars and clubs openly ignore the ban, allowing smokers to light up at will and do nothing to deter them. Many of those that enforce the rule allow customers to smoke just outside their premises, often providing tables for the purpose. A pall hangs overhead; a toxic fug greets people going in and out or passing by.

The law presumes that proprietors will be advocates. If a customer lit up, they were expected to politely inform that person of the law and ask that the cigarette be extinguished. If the smoker persisted, officers would be called. This seems fine in the refined air of the Legislative Council chamber; in practice in the highly competitive bar and restaurant business, it is easy to keep smoking customers happy by simply turning a blind eye. Keeping people who smoke happy is not what the law is supposed to be about. They are in a minority and their habit affects the health of others as much as themselves. Any law should ban indoor smoking in public places and put the onus of enforcement on proprietors. Just as with underage drinking, violations should jeopardise the chance to hold licences to operate. The law has to be revisited.

Beyond this, public outdoor smoking has to be the next part of the discussion. There has not been a recent survey of trends to determine whether the ban is convincing people to quit, but anecdotal evidence would suggest not. Cigarettes remain relatively inexpensive compared to other wealthy cities, so a substantial raising of the tax and putting the revenues into anti-smoking campaigns as so successfully happens elsewhere makes good sense. Fears that more cigarettes will be smuggled here are warranted, but as with the ban, a solution lies in determined enforcement. Smoking is bad for community health; the sooner the government gets serious about discouraging it, the better off we will be.