Smoking-ban legislation needs to be reviewed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 December, 2010, 12:00am

If ever a law and its enforcement cried out to be reviewed, it is the ban on smoking in public places. After three years it is being flagrantly breached. It is common for licensees of small indoor entertainment venues such as bars, karaoke bars, billiards parlours, saunas and games rooms to turn a blind eye to smoking by patrons. They know not to expect snap raids by tobacco control officers, and that only the smokers will get into trouble.

The most blatant example is to be found in the city's 50-odd privately operated billiards and snooker rooms. Non-smoking players have difficulty finding one that is smoke-free. Since so many players are smokers, few are likely to complain. As we have reported, an attempt by one non-smoking player to rally support in online forums for at least one smoke-free venue resulted in him being told that if he could not stand the smell of cigarettes he should not have started playing. Smoking and tolerance of it may be the rule among billiards room patrons, but there needs to be only one non-smoker who objects. The point about the law is that it was not passed to stamp out smoking. The habit remains legal. It is to protect the health of people who might suffer from the effects of second-hand smoke, most specifically staff, but also members of the public who could not avoid breathing in the fumes.

It is clearly not working. Less than 200 HK$1,500 fixed penalty tickets were handed out in billiards parlours from January to October, out of a total of 5,845 in all venues. Overall, that is an average of about six a month for each of 99 tobacco control officers. Enforcement does not reflect the potential harm to others. Socially there is an argument for treating it more like drink-driving, with random checks. Anti-smoking health activists have a point in saying the law would be more effective if entertainment venue operators were legally liable for enforcing the ban, at the risk of losing their licences. As it stands, it represents a consensus that fails to protect the people it was meant to. Venues will survive a proper smoking ban, as they have elsewhere. It is time the legislation was reviewed to put public health first.