An increasing number of tobacco control inspectors are being attacked by smokers caught puffing in banned areas, prompting the Department of Health to introduce self-defence training for the law enforcers.
The smokers, including women, have been jailed for up to three months for the assaults. The department's Tobacco Control Office said the number of inspectors assaulted rose from five in 2008 and four in 2009 to 10 last year. There were five cases in the first four months of this year.
The head of the office, Dr Raymond Ho Lei-ming, said inspectors had faced increasing violence since the introduction of fixed penalties.
Since September 2009, inspectors have been issuing HK$1,500 fixed- penalty tickets to people caught smoking in banned areas, including restaurants, amusement centres, karaoke parlours and bus terminuses.
Ho said the attacks were probably the result of smokers reacting on the spot to the 'immediate pain' of heavy fines. In the past they would have been summoned to court and fined just a few hundred dollars.
'In some cases, the attackers are not the smokers but their friends or families. Our team always assesses the potential risk of an operation. Sometimes they conduct a joint operation with the police.'
Last week lawmakers ratified the 41.5 per cent rise in tobacco tax - a move that will further anger smokers who feel they are being persecuted.
Ho said self-defence classes would start shortly for any staff members interested. Apart from regular inspections, the 99 tobacco control inspectors also visit no-smoking areas after receiving public complaints. The number of complaints of illegal smoking received by the office rose from 15,321 in 2008 to 17,089 in 2010. The number of inspections rose from 13,302 to 23,623.
Bars are the worst places for violent attacks; smokers at amusement centres and mahjong parlours are more co-operative. The inspectors who were attacked usually suffered bruises or abrasions, but none of the injuries were serious enough to require hospital treatment. Fines for those convicted ranged from HK$1,000 to HK$2,500. The more serious offenders were sentenced to between one and three months' jail.
Smoking was banned in all indoor areas in 2007 and in entertainment premises in 2009. The government will later consider if venue operators should also be prosecuted. At present, only smokers are fined.
The number of deaths worldwide every year that are said to be caused by smoking
- In Hong Kong, that figure is 6,000 deaths a year