Passive problem: Like banning idling engines, Hong Kong’s campaign against smoking in public is an embarrassing flop

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

I was waiting for a friend outside a shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui recently when a woman stood right next to me and lit up a cigarette. I happened to be downwind as well, and was soon inhaling copious amounts of second hand smoke she was generously blowing my way.

I pointed out to her politely, with a friendly smile, that there was a dustbin for smokers about 10 feet away from us. She replied with a defiant “So? This is a public space.” It was all downhill from there.

As someone who finally succeeded in kicking the habit more than a decade ago, after numerous failed attempts, I have difficulty remaining passive about passive smoking.

In the heat of the moment, I had fleeting visions of snatching that cigarette out of her mouth and extinguishing it in her eye as I tried to control my temper. But she was all smoke and fire and it would have turned into a ghetto fight right there on the street, dignity be damned, if it hadn’t been for her much more reasonable husband or partner, who hastily ushered her away while she continued to give me the evil eye in parting.

Which now brings me to the point: is it just me or is everyone and their mum smoking in the streets and other public places in Hong Kong these days?

The government banned smoking in all indoor public venues back in 2004, providing much-needed relief to staff and non-smoking customers at bars and restaurants. Hong Kong now boasts of a blanket ban across all indoor and outdoor public venues.

If only everyone was cooperating, though. Walk into many bars and restaurants across Hong Kong now, and you’ll see the ban is a joke. I’ve been to bars where cigarettes are sold over the counter. What’s the government doing about it?

According to the Health Department’s Tobacco Control Office (TCO), the number of complaints about illegal smoking fell slightly from 18,079 in 2013 to 17, 354 last year. More than 29,000 inspections were carried out last year, which was a 6 per cent increase over 2013. More than 8,000 fixed-penalty notices and summonses were issued to offenders.

But let me explain what goes on behind the smokescreen of seemingly impressive statistics.

Speaking from personal experience, when you see someone smoking in a bar or restaurant and get worked up enough about it to make a complaint to the TCO hotline, be prepared for some serious frustration. To begin with, the service is contracted out to a call centre, so it’s no use venting at the person on the other end of the line if you have difficulty getting through or have to leave a message.

When they answer or return your call, you can provide details of your complaint, which they’ll pass on to the TCO, but don’t expect any action right away. Inspectors will raid the place days later and you will get an update after that, which could take a week or longer. By then you’ve probably lost interest.

In my case, I was persistent and bloody minded enough to visit the bar I had complained about and ask for details of the raid. The bartender’s account was a revelation.

Three or four TCO inspectors entered the bar where more than a dozen people were smoking at various tables one night. All the inspectors went straight for the first smoker in their line of sight, catching him with a cigarette in his hand, surrounding him and slapping him with the standard HK$1,500 fine. No action was taken against any of the other smokers because they had put their cigarettes down as soon as they saw the inspectors. Those who reacted late didn’t have to worry either, as the guardians of our lungs were too occupied with their primary single target.

Pardon the mixed metaphor, but being caught red-handed with a smoking gun doesn’t mean anything in the world of tobacco control in Hong Kong. All you have to do when inspectors burst in on you is put your cigarette down, cross your arms and pretend it’s not yours. The cigarette may still be lit, but despite the overwhelming evidence they will still accept your shamelessly fraudulent defence. In fact, as in the case of the raid I engineered, nobody else was questioned about all those ash trays full of burning cigarettes around the room. They all returned to puffers’ paradise when the inspectors left.

See the problem here? The powers that be have decided that bar and restaurant operators should not be held accountable for customers breaking the law. Patrons are lighting up at their own risk. Understandably, operators are reluctant to ask customers not to smoke for fear of losing their patronage. Plus they’re not risking anything themselves except lung damage, which is happening anyway because of air pollution in Hong Kong.

I asked health minister Ko Wing-man recently why the government wouldn’t adopt a simple solution – hold the operators of food and beverage establishments responsible. He said it’s not something the government is considering.

Fine. So you can put this right up there with the fiasco that is the government’s ban against idling engines. Officials ended up granting so many exemptions to so many whingers in the transport industry, what started as a bold anti-pollution initiative finished as an embarrassing flop.

I’ve also observed a not-so-subtle change in society’s attitude towards smoking. In the ‘90s, when fitness fads, public awareness and political correctness had stigmatised smoking, the trend in movies, especially from Hollywood, was to shun the “cool dude” images of the past decades of brooding heroes with cigarettes dangling from their lips. Nowadays, it looks like it’s become “cool” again to smoke, judging by the number of movies with protagonists lighting up on screen. It’s even gone a step further with tobacco being replaced by marijuana.

Perhaps that’s one factor encouraging people to contribute to roadside air pollution like so many walking, talking, smoke-belching menaces to society. I’m not attacking those who smoke within the confines of their homes, or in designated smoking areas, without bothering anyone.

I know what it’s like to be addicted to cigarettes, and I’m definitely not out to challenge or antagonise those who cannot or will not stub out the habit. It’s a free society and people have a right to indulge – they understand the risks and they’re making a lifestyle choice.

I’m just saying if you blow smoke in my face with your lifestyle choice and then pick a fight when I object, you’re risking a fat lip. How are you going to look cool with your cigarette then, dude?