A BREATH of fresh air: just what Hong Kong needs. And it's now being brought to you by an Austrian entrepreneur and former hotel executive who trained as a psychologist. Ilse Massenbauer-Strafe has just introduced this stressed-out city to the latest, hippest international health craze through oxygen bar Oxyvital, which officially opened last week. Walk through the frosted glass doors of the neat premises on Wellington Street, Central, insulated against the interminable succession of lorries spluttering carbon monoxide, into a place that looks like a nursery school: pale blue walls, brightly coloured chairs, a curved table running down one side. But Oxyvital is not for children ... not yet anyway. It is, as Massenbauer-Strafe describes it, 'an oasis, a place where you can just come and breathe.' Oxygen bars are not new to the US, Canada or Europe. Oxygen therapy as a natural boost to health is based on too much scientific research by credible professionals to be denounced immediately as a load of hot air. In the United States, the therapy has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for specific conditions like carbon monoxide poisoning and soft-tissue damage. And while critics say that unless you have such problems it won't do anything for you, there are those who swear by the scented 'fix' for its own sake. You go to a place like Oxyvital, whose stocks are maintained by the same company which supplies hospitals with bottled oxygen, to sniff an oxygenated cocktail - in almost any fruity flavour you want. But not before you sign a disclaimer stating that you have neither emphysema nor chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And you can't be pregnant either. Customers are handed a hot towel and asked by Massenbauer-Strafe, or one of her non-medically trained employees, how they feel. Jet-lagged? Apple will do the trick. Need a bit more energy? Perhaps a cinnamon-based floral water. Eyes red and bleary? Carrots are a good remedy. Want to shed a couple of kilos? Strawberries, watermelon, basically 'anything red', says Massenbauer-Strafe. A fruit or other flavouring is selected and its undiluted juice - which also helps to 'spice up' the otherwise bland oxygen - is poured into a canister, into which swirls 99.99 per cent pure oxygen from a generator. A clear plastic tube is attached to the canister at one end, and your nostrils at the other, the machine acting like a nebuliser as you inhale, clearing head and lungs. If that sounds like another kooky New Age money-spinner, critics may like to know the service is more affordable than many other 'fringe' practices. At $120 for a 20-minute 'hit', including a glass of mineral water (which has apparently absorbed healing qualities - more of which later) dropping into the bar is cheaper than a Lan Kwai Fong lunch. So three of us tried it: myself, photographer Graham Uden and nutritional therapist Louise Purvis, whom I invited for her professional opinion. Massenbauer-Strafe suggested I go for oxygenated lemon, which she also recommends for colds, flu and to alleviate hair and skin infections. I was taken to one of two private rooms, where reclining on one of the black leather chairs is itself relaxing. (A session in a private room runs to $180, including a fresh fruit juice.) FROSTED GLASS panels mute a series of fluorescent lights: green for harmony, red for energy, blue for composure. We went for the ice-blue light, which reminded me of a Thierry Mugler shopping bag, and chose from a predictable musical repertoire: babbling brooks, waves lapping the sea shore, birds chirping. Massenbauer-Strafe selected a CD from Dan Gibson's Solitudes - Exploring Nature with Music series; headphones came on, the tubes were inserted, and I was told to breathe deeply as the lemon juice-infused oxygen entered my bloodstream. In fairness to Oxyvital, I was too busy scribbling notes, feeling self-conscious and generally fiddling with everything to enjoy the experience fully, although I could see what might be agreeable about it. Customers are invited to leaf through books on oxygen and colour therapy as they inhale the fruity vapours. Or read poetry. Or gaze at the tropical fish in the tank in the wall. Or let the music transport them to some exotic location. Uden tried it having arrived home at 4.30 that morning from a lengthy drinking session, and was happy to test anything that might lift the fog around his head. He emerged after 10 minutes, energetic and bright-eyed, swearing he felt 'alert'. Purvis, who selected carrot-scented oxygen, said the treatment revived her. 'If I'd been feeling very stressed I think it would have helped to relax me in the short term,' Purvis said. 'There maybe long-term health benefits to it, nobody really knows, but Massenbauer-Strafe is not making any great health claims. Oxygen is obviously clean and good for you. Doctors are sceptical about it, but they're usually sceptical about things they don't control. If it works for you, great.' Would she go again? 'If I didn't have such a busy life I might, but it's not on my list of priorities.' DR PANG Shiu-fun, a professor in the Department of Physiology at the University of Hong Kong, believes there is sufficient oxygen in the atmosphere. 'For normal individuals, I don't think [oxygen therapy] will be of any significant health value. If someone has problems with their lungs, or in the case of other special medical problems, additional oxygen may help,' he says. 'Perhaps if you believe in something then, psychologically, it may have some benefit. For $120, I'd rather go up a hill and breathe fresh air,' he laughs. While explaining that oxygen also fulfils the function of breaking down food to provide energy for the body, Dr Pang warns against too much of it, saying it could cause 'unnecessary oxidation in certain tissues', generating free radicals which are harmful to cells and which in turn can speed up ageing. But Massenbauer-Strafe says: 'People now grab another coffee or another cigarette when they are stressed - what's healthy about that? We are offering them a chance to be surrounded by calming music and lighting, lie down if they want, and breathe pure, clean air. It is the equivalent of running off to the forest or the mountains or the beach for half an hour. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, we can't do any of those things.' Proponents of oxygen therapy base their beliefs on the scientific fact that the blood needs oxygen to maintain the body's chemical equilibrium. Medical thinking has it that air and water pollution may adversely affect the body's ability to use oxygen effectively. Dr Charles Farr of the United States, nominated for the 1993 Nobel prize for medicine, and who wrote the foreword to Nathaniel Altman's book, Oxygen Healing Therapies - For Optimum Health And Vitality, says a lack of oxygen hits the immune system and makes people more susceptible to allergens, infections and toxins. And in How Exercise With Oxygen Therapy Can: Stop Ageing Or Slow The Process, Dr William Campbell Douglass MD, writes: 'When your cells don't get enough oxygen they degenerate and die, and so you degenerate and die. It's as simple as that.' With degrees in psychology and marketing, Massenbauer-Strafe, 35, admits she is no medical expert. All she knows came from reading about the subject and trying various therapies. Allergic to penicillin, and keen to avoid drugs where possible, she was reared on natural therapies and fresh air. And after 12 years in Asia, the last three months of which have been in Hong Kong (although previously she lived here for seven years, working in hotel marketing) she says critics of natural treatments will always exist - and are entitled to their opinions. 'I only know what I know,' says Massenbauer-Strafe, who regularly took oxygen while living in the US. 'I take 20 minutes of it everyday [she experiments with flavours] and I feel great. I have more energy than ever and the dark circles under my eyes have disappeared. I am able to cope with a demanding two-year old son, a busy husband, a busy life. Others can think what they want.' Others do. Dr David Lee Ka-yan, advisor to the Hong Kong Association of Healthcare Professionals, describes oxygen therapy as nothing more than 'a good business'. 'We all need oxygen, but there is plenty in the air,' he says. 'God has determined how much we need, and there is no point getting any extra because we can't carry it.' Massenbauer-Strafe has heard it all before. 'Sure there is enough, but it is polluted and dirty. And most of the time people here are too busy to breathe properly. They take it for granted.' Dr Lee believes only those with serious congenital heart defects or chronic pneumonia could benefit from extra oxygen - and that even then it should be administered in hospital. Oxygen bars, he says, 'are for people who can afford to throw away their money. It's not worth it.' INITIAL reactions from officialdom have not been encouraging either. Shortly after Oxyvital opened, a Health Department spokesman said there were plans to add oxygen to a pharmaceutical and poisons list, which might mean its being used for medical purposes only. An inspection by Department officials followed, in which the bar's appliances, installed by an engineering company, were checked, and passed. Massenbauer-Strafe was disappointed by the Department's attitude. 'Oxygen is not a poison at all - if it were we'd all die,' she says. 'And we're not telling people to breathe it for 10 hours, just 20 minutes.' Despite her passion for her business, Massenbauer-Strafe could not explain fully why certain fruits would have a physiological impact on the body. Purvis challenged her claim that coconut-flavoured oxygen would help bring down cholesterol levels when coconuts themselves contain a considerable degree of cholesterol. But as she indicated, people the world over have often adopted age-old natural practices without understanding how they work - using the St John's Wort plant to alleviate depression, or lavender oil to beat stress, for example. 'It is all in the properties of the fruit,' said Massenbauer-Strafe. 'If they smell a certain way, they are bound to have an impact on how you feel.' Purvis believes the addition of fruit juice to oxygen is 'a nice option; and if you think a particular fruit will help a particular problem it probably will,' she says, much as a placebo would. The colour therapy aspect of Oxyvital's treatments seems the less credible. Water is poured from coloured jugs and served on trays lined with napkins, whose own hues are selected for certain properties: yellow for happiness, red to 'heat up the body', and again, green for harmony, blue for composure. I downed a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice after my lemon oxygen encounter, and although it was served on a yellow-lined tray it tasted like any fresh orange juice would. And I felt no different afterwards. But then if there wasn't at least one thing blatantly flaky about this place it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.