Statistically, Hong Kong stands a chance of being the world's first city to be declared smoke-free, which is defined as having less than 5 per cent of the population smoking. With only an estimated 11 to 12 per cent of people over 15 smoking, we already have the lowest rate in the Asia-Pacific region and what would appear to be the best among developed societies.
But the world is watching to see if Australia snatches the smoke-free title from under our noses. On December 1 a law forcing tobacco firms to sell cigarettes in identical plain, drab packets featuring graphic health warnings came into effect in Australia in an effort to strip away any fashion or glamour and discourage young people from taking up the habit.
The government pressed ahead with the new law, the first of its kind anywhere, after it was upheld by the country's top court. This despite continuing legal challenges and threats by the tobacco industry over claimed infringement of its intellectual rights and unfair restriction of trade. The lure is the potential saving of 15,000 lives lost to smoking-related diseases each year, and A$31.5 billion (HK$262.86 billion) annually in related healthcare costs and lost productivity.
What is Hong Kong waiting for in following suit? Our indoor no-smoking regime is plagued by defiance, weak enforcement and poor law drafting, which does not hold managers and owners of bars, discos and the like liable for breaches of the law.
That our smoking levels are so low is thanks to three decades of campaigning by anti-tobacco lobbyists, government education campaigns, indoor bans and tax increases that have hurt smokers badly in the pocket for the sake of their health. But it is still not uncommon to see smoking in some pubs, nightclubs and karaoke bars. Busy shopping districts are prone to pollution by the cigarette smoke of tourists, particularly those from the mainland. Overseas studies show that children remain easily influenced by the behaviour of their parents and peers.
Do we really need to wait and see how the Australian initiative turns out before considering further measures?