The extent of the health threat posed by tobacco is now almost universally recognised. Vividly described by a leading US specialist as a weapon of mass destruction, smoking is estimated to claim at least five million lives a year, and the World Health Organisation has warned this figure may double by 2010. While the problem in Hong Kong is nowhere near as serious as that faced by some other parts of the world, it remains a major cause for concern. The total number of smokers here has been declining annually, but there is evidence that more young people and women are acquiring the habit. Official figures suggest around 5,500 people die of smoking-related diseases here each year, while many more require treatment. Plans by the government to step up its efforts to deter people from smoking and to provide a healthier environment in public places are therefore to be welcomed. Indeed, they are long overdue. But experience has shown that attempts at a crackdown will prove to be highly controversial. Smokers complain their rights are being trampled on, the tobacco industry argues it is being unfairly treated, and the catering sector expresses fears about its business interests. The latest proposals being considered will be no exception. In fact, they are more radical than those put forward in the past, including the use of graphic health warnings on cigarette packets. But there appears to be a determination to make them a reality. Since being appointed director of health, Lam Ping-yan has made it clear he regards cracking down on smoking as one of his priorities. Today, we report that a comprehensive package of anti-smoking measures is in the pipeline. They include a total ban on smoking in all restaurants, with plans to gradually extend it to bars and nightclubs. Outlawing smoking in schools and offices is also on the agenda. But officials will have a fight on their hands, particularly in their attempt to provide protection from passive smoking. Similar smoking bans were proposed by the government in 2001. The consultation exercise showed overwhelming support from the public, with around 98 per cent of submissions backing a wider ban. However, there was a backlash from restaurant and bar owners, who claimed it would be devastating to their business. They were successful in ensuring that implementation of the proposals was delayed - until now. The economic impact of the September 11 attacks, then the onset of Sars, which did great damage to the industry, persuaded the government to back off. Now, as the economy begins to rebound, the time is right to put the proposals back on course. At a time of record unemployment, concerns about any policy that might cause job losses must be taken seriously. But the experience of countries overseas who have already imposed such bans is that they have no effect on business. There are even indications that more people will be inclined to visit restaurants if they are smoke-free. A study conducted by the government in 2001 suggested 11,000 jobs would be created in the restaurant industry, and tourists would be more likely to come to Hong Kong. Clearly, measures aimed at tackling the smoking threat involve a balancing of different interests. Plans to make managers of public areas liable for failing to prevent smoking on their premises, and to empower health officials to help enforce the measures, will need careful consideration. But the overriding consideration must be improving public health. The measures are in keeping with a worldwide trend. In May, the World Health Organisation gave preliminary approval to an anti-tobacco convention to help countries clamp down. Having declared war on smoking, the government must not flinch from the battles that will inevitably lie ahead.