Still hazy after all these years

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 December, 2011, 12:00am

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For at least six years, from the time anti-smoking legislation for restaurants and bars was first discussed, owners have complained that a ban will kill their businesses, staff have fretted over job losses and smokers have grumbled about the lack of choice.

Despite the pessimism, Hong Kong's dining scene remains as dynamic as ever, five years after the ban took effect in restaurants. Today, operators mostly fall into three camps - those who have accepted the smoking ban and even endorse it; those who dislike the ban and believe business has been negatively affected; and those who are flouting the law.

There are many venues in which smokers are still lighting up, despite the government imposing a complete smoking ban inside entertainment venues, a ban that the Health Department's Tobacco Control Office claims to be enforcing.

'Hong Kong has a smoking ban indoors? I didn't know that,' quips Kenny Lee Kun-yee, a member of the Wan Chai District Council who supported the extension of the ban two years ago. 'Just last night I was at a Chinese restaurant in Causeway Bay and people were smoking at the table across from me.'

The Health Department, however, says the ban has been a success.

'We follow up on every smoking complaint by inspecting all venues concerned,' says the department's public relations officer, Chris Cheung Chi-man. 'Aside from reacting to complaints, we make unannounced inspections, especially at the restaurants and bars located above the ground floor, which we call 'black spots'.'

Grant Baird, group operations director for Epicurean Group, which operates restaurants, bars, and hybrids of the two such as Jimmy's Kitchen in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui, Agave in Wan Chai, and The Peak Lookout, disagrees.

'We don't really see [smoking] inspectors any more,' he says. 'They were around the first year, but they've become virtually invisible today. 'Maybe [the inspectors] know there's not going to be a problem at major establishments in high-profile areas, and are focusing on bars and restaurants in high rises,' he says.

But according to nearly a dozen Hong Kong smokers who frequent restaurants and bars that allow smoking, the inspectors are nowhere to be found in those locations either.

'It doesn't even feel like I'm breaking the law when I smoke during dinner,' says Christine Ko Wan-ting, who cites the Prince Restaurant in Causeway Bay and Hoi Yeung Seafood Restaurant in Jordan's Sino Cheer Plaza as among those with smoking rooms.

These venues are not even hidden on an upper floor inside an inconspicuous building, like most smoking bars are.

'They're legitimate businesses that are quite out in the open,' says Leslie Lau Ho-man, who works in marketing and is another frequent smoker. 'It's a joke for the [Tobacco Control Office] to pretend they're out there shutting these places down when every Chinese hotpot restaurant has a smoking room.'

This inconsistent enforcing of the law frustrates restaurant operators who obey the law.

'I wouldn't say the smoking ban itself has hurt our business,' says Baird. 'But the unfair ruling of the law does.'

Kevin McBarron, owner of the bars Devil's Advocate and The Canny Man, calls the ban pathetic.

Most nameless, local Chinese bars and restaurants still allow smoking, he says, but the Western bars that have a brand name and reputation are forced to suffer.

'There is no evidence, anywhere, that receipts for bars and restaurants have gone up,' he says. 'I can provide evidence that my bar receipts have gone down.'

Linda Kwan, marketing and PR director of Cafe Deco group, which runs more than 45 restaurants and bars across town, says the company supports the ban.

'We're not the first country in the world to put that law in place,' she says. 'I don't think the ban ever affected restaurants that much, smokers are used to 'butting out' before sitting down to eat anyway.'

Cafe Deco didn't suffer a significant drop in business due to the ban, but Kwan says that may be because most of their restaurants have outdoor spaces and patios.

The El Grande chain, operator of restaurants and bars such as Grappa's and East End Brewery, experienced a drop in business of up to 20 per cent at some of its venues.

John Robertson, the company's marketing director, says, 'Sales have come back, but the ban still hurts some bars and restaurants. It hurts them because the ban is not enforced properly, and thus the responsible operations who comply with it suffer, while the irresponsible ones reap the benefits by getting new customers. This unintended effect of punishing responsible bars while rewarding irresponsible ones is something that people who champion the existing measures have overlooked, and their blithe public statements about the positive effects such measures have had on bars misleads the public.'

Baird says there has been a slow climb back from Epicurean's intitial drop in restaurant receipts.

'I think people are just getting used to it,' he says. 'If anything, the new problem for us now is customers smoking outside and then dropping butts on the floor right in front of restaurant entrances.'

James Middleton, chairman of Clear the Air's anti-tobacco committee, says he always knew the smoking ban wouldn't negatively affect business too much. He points to official data to prove his point.

According to statistics from the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, overall restaurant receipts this year are up HK$3.7 billion from 2006, before the initial loose smoking legislation came into force.

But these figures cover a much wider spectrum and don't necessarily show the whole picture, says Poon Chi-wai, a statistical officer at the department.

'Our report doesn't exclusively cover restaurants, but also hotel food services and even street vendors,' Poon says. 'It also focuses on revenue only, without factoring in expenses, so the numbers are not net profits.'

Middleton, a hardline anti-tobacco activist who has been observing the government's efforts at tobacco control for years, isn't thrilled with the way the smoking ban has been implemented, either.

'The chances of [smokers] being caught by [Tobacco Control Office] are minimal,' he says.

However, 6,500 penalty citations were issued this year, stemming from 19,000 inspections, according to Cheung.

Middleton doesn't accept these figures, and says the penalty should focus on the owners and landlords.

'The onus has to be on them,' he says. 'Right now only the smokers themselves are penalised if caught, but if the owners faced similar penalities they would snuff out smoking completely.'

Other countries such as the US and Britain have harsher punishment for venues that break smoking laws, says Middleton, pointing to several overseas cases in which large venues lost their licence for violating the law.

'Hong Kong should do the same and force businesses to follow the law or lose their licence,' he says.

Lee, of the Wan Chai District Council, says she's mostly satisfied with the ban so far, despite the obvious breaking of the law.

'The smoking ban has raised awareness and has caused a lot of people to smoke less or quit,' she says. 'A complete crackdown on smoking is unrealistic.

'What more can the government do? It is understaffed, and smaller bars will suffer huge business drops if there is no smoking.'

Greg Yu Kin-wai, a non-smoker who works in IT, agrees.

'We've snuffed out enough smoking so that most of us can be free from smoke most of the time,' he says. 'And that's good enough. No law is ever going to go unbroken, anywhere.'

But as long as there is smoking indoors, there's a huge health risk for workers, says Anthony Hedley, chair professor of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong.

'Several years ago we examined the levels of contamination of the body fluids of hospitality workers by cancer- and heart disease-causing tobacco chemicals,' he says. 'The result showed their bodies were saturated with toxic substances and were more likely to develop lung cancer and heart diseases.'

There is no reason to trade off health for the preferences of smokers, he adds.

Baird says his staff are more than thankful they no longer have to inhale second-hand smoke, while several waitresses from local cha chaan teng in Mong Kok, Wan Chai, and Sai Ying Pun all say they prefer to work in a smoke-free environment.

Ko says: 'Right now, we have what seems to be a smoke-free dining scene on the surface, but if you dig deep enough you can find places to smoke. And that's how it should be. That's how it is with every law around the world. You can never completely shut something out, it'll end up causing those who've been shut out to revolt.'