With few examples to draw on from overseas, the government has turned to the medical profession to back its plan to control the numbers in upstairs bars.
The lack of international cases to refer to for safety regulations in bars located above ground level has made the ongoing review more difficult, one official said.
"Having bars located inside high-rises is unique to Hong Kong. They're [usually located] on the ground floor in other places," the official said. "Without an international reference, it's difficult to determine a standard to set limits on patron numbers."
The Liquor Licensing Board contacted the Medical Association last week to ascertain how upstairs bar patrons who had been drinking would react in an emergency situation such as a fire. The findings will be used to justify its plan for tighter crowd control measures.
Medical Association vice-president Dr Chow Pak-chin confirmed it had received a letter from the liquor board seeking opinions on the issue. Chow, who backs tighter controls on patron numbers in upstairs bars, warned that impaired judgment and loss of balance after consuming too much alcohol could put drinkers at risk during a fire in one of the high-rises.
"Patrons who are drunk won't be able to escape as easily if there's a fire. In that situation, they wouldn't be able to use elevators so they would have to negotiate the stairs - that could be very dangerous for people who have been drinking," Chow said. "As doctors, we are concerned about public health and safety. There is an urgency to work out the safety measures before we have a tragedy," he said.
Chow said men should not drink more than three to four units of alcohol per day, while women should stop at two to three units.
Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man called for tighter restrictions on numbers after participating in a spot check of bars in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui conducted by the Liquor Licensing Board last month. At present, the board specifies a capacity limit in its licence conditions for all pubs and bars, but it varies. There is also no fixed standard for determining the limit. In a reply to the South China Morning Post, the board said that when determining the limit it would also "take into account the assessment from the Buildings Department on the adequacy of the means of escape and other related considerations".
Moves to restrict the numbers have been strongly opposed by bar owners, who say business is tough enough as it is. One trade association warned bars would simply start operating illegally if the government stepped up restrictions on patron numbers.
The official told the Post any move to tighten controls would only apply to upstairs bars, mainly because of the fire hazard issue, adding that drinks were often left in stairwells, cluttering the exits.
Tsim Sha Tsui is home to most of the city's upstairs bars, many of them jam-packed with patrons on weekends and holidays.
Kit Lau, who runs an upstairs bar on Austin Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, said: "We've seen business slump 10 to 15 per cent a year since I got into the industry 15 years ago."
Chin Chun-wing, vice-chairman of the Bar and Club Association, said the industry was already self-regulating. "The government should wait [two to three years] to see if it reduces complaints," Chin said. "I'm worried more bars will start operating illegally if the government pushes through stricter rules."