Hong Kong remains on course to have smoke-free air in covered public places, including restaurants and bars, by next year. But the expected campaign to blow the city off course raised its head this week with a survey that claimed a smoking ban would cost pubs and karaoke bars half their business. A timely response comes in a government survey that says the planned smoking ban in such places would reduce tobacco consumption significantly. Tobacco smoking and inhalation of the fumes have long been recognised as a cause of cancer and other ailments that shorten lives. Smokers increase the risk of lung cancer by 10 to 25 times. Legislation that will extend laws now banning smoking in lifts, cinemas and sections of large restaurants to anywhere there is a roof, meaning virtually every workplace including restaurants and bars, is now being considered by the bills committee of the Legislative Council. A 2003 thematic household survey by the Census and Statistics Department showed that more than 22 per cent of 16,000 people who smoke daily say they started because they felt pressure to do so at social functions. Christine Wong Wang, head of the Tobacco Control Office, says overseas experience has shown that a tobacco ban in all public areas can significantly help smokers cut back when they find it inconvenient to smoke. This is at odds with the survey findings by the Wan Chai-Causeway Bay pub and bar lobby group that 88 per cent of smokers said a ban would not make them quit. Clean-air activists apparently have good reason to be concerned about increasing pressure from the tobacco industry, and business and catering lobbies to have the smoking-ban legislation watered down and delayed by generous grace periods. It is not surprising that powerful tobacco companies are trying to protect their profits by having the legislation delayed. They succeeded in 2001 by mobilising thousands of protesters. But owners of bars and nightclubs are also stepping up their efforts. Their claim that they will lose business is contrary to the experience of countries with similar no-smoking laws, where business has been more likely to pick up when customers can breathe clean air while socialising, eating or drinking. A recent study by the universities of Hong Kong and Queensland, Australia, put the cost of smoking to Hong Kong at $5.3 billion. Almost 7,000 deaths a year are blamed on smoking or passive inhalation. On top of that, tens of thousands of people go to hospital with smoking-related illnesses. Even if pubs and bars lose some customers, the remainder are likely to be around for longer. Opponents of the legislation have yet to produce a responsible argument why Hong Kong should not have smoking laws increasingly being adopted by other great cities, such as New York and Sydney.