Our half-hearted war against smoking

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2011, 12:00am

Now that only about 12 per cent, or one in eight, Hong Kong people still smoke, you don't hear much these days about smokers' rights as opposed to the rights of the majority to breathe clean air. But the latest study on smoking and air quality has flushed the diehards out.

The Ontario Tobacco Research Unit in Canada measured pollution levels in a busy Toronto street with no smokers in sight, and compared them with measurements outside office buildings in the same area where workers congregated to smoke. When a few smokers puffed near building entrances the density of PM2.5 air pollutant particles was more than three times higher, and 20 times higher than the World Health Organisation guideline for 'clean air'.

The researchers noted increasing scientific evidence that even short-term exposure could have adverse health effects for people with sensitive cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Hong Kong's public health professionals and anti-smoking activists seized on this to advocate smoke-free zones for building entrances. It was claimed the comparable pollution levels would be high in Hong Kong, with its tall buildings and poor air flow in many streets, and smoke could enter buildings through windows and ventilation systems. But a spokeswoman for the I Smoke Alliance said a ban would be a further erosion of smokers' rights, since most workers did not have time to walk to an outdoor smoking zone.

She need not worry too much, if the ineffectiveness of the existing ban in indoor public places is any indication. It has failed to deter smoking in small entertainment venues because of half-hearted enforcement. The operators are not legally liable and tobacco control officers only act in response to complaints. The government therefore seems unlikely to follow other jurisdictions in legislating smoke-free buffer zones, even around government building entrances. Rather, the smokers' alliance should worry about the administration raising the tobacco tax again in this month's budget. That is one measure it has had the stomach for in the past, and it did spare smokers in last year's budget.