WHAT A DIFFERENCE a day made. On the night of January 1 street cleaner Wong Chun noticed an increase in the amount of cigarette butts in the public rubbish bins in Tsim Sha Tsui. The 48-year-old knew why. 'It's the government's smoking ban,' says Wong. 'People can't smoke in restaurants, so they have a drag on the street before or after eating. It's good though. The air quality at the cha chan teng [tea house] I go to is better now.' Wong's observation may be purely anecdotal, but the air quality in many restaurants in the city has certainly improved since New Year's Day, when the smoking ban took effect. The new law applies to indoor areas, including restaurants, bars, karaoke lounges and workplaces. Anyone caught lighting up in these spots can be hit with a fine of up to HK$5,000. According to press reports, workers at some cha chan tengs still turn a blind eye to customers smoking, and no diner has yet been arrested. But most restaurants are willingly complying with the law. 'We were looking forward to it,' says Wong Sing-fan, owner of Mido Cafe, a 56-year-old restaurant in Yau Ma Tei. 'Smoking is a personal habit, but in public places why should we non-smokers have to suffer second-hand smoke? We're happy with the new law. Our clients are compliant, and our employees are glad they don't have to wash ashtrays any more. They stink!' Management of French restaurant La Fourchette in Admiralty is equally sanguine. 'There has been no impact on our business,' says executive chef Patrice Gabet. 'We were scared because we didn't know how people would react, but so far everyone has taken it well. We now have a higher turnover. We used to have some guests coming here at 10am to have a coffee and smoke four or five cigarettes. Today, people still come to have a coffee, but 10 minutes later they're gone because they need to go out to smoke.' When California introduced a law to ban smoking in public places in 1998, controversy erupted and critics said it would never work. But today a smoke-free public environment is normal in many parts of the world. In 2003, New York City banned cigarettes in public places. The next year, traditionally smoky pubs in Ireland became a thing of the past as a result of an anti-smoking law. Just last week, a public smoking ban came into force in France, home of such chain-smokers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean-Paul Belmondo. 'I think the smoking ban is good - we're all more health-conscious now,' says Gabet, a Frenchman. But some local restaurateurs say that the grace period given to bars and nightclubs to prepare for the ban is unfair. More than 500 bars, some of which also serve food, are exempt from the new law until June 30, 2009. 'We welcome the non-smoking policy, but it's a weak law,' says Benjamin Graham, assistant manager of California Restaurant and Bar in Lan Kwai Fong. 'It's not a ban for all. There are loopholes, because people can still smoke in some places that have an exemption.' 'It's unfair,' Gabet says. 'It would be better if the ban was for all. In 2009, all places will be like us. So why not a complete ban today? We believe bar businesses are the most excited, because people are searching for new locations where they can have a drink and smoke.' Smokers need look no further than the website of the government's Tobacco Control Office ( www.tobaccocontrol . gov.hk). In what is, in effect, a dining and drinking guide for smokers, the site features a comprehensive list of public establishments, including bars and nightclubs, that have been granted an exemption from the ban. And as Gabet says, some of the venues are excited about the exemption. 'Yeah, we're lucky,' says Joseph Norberd Araojo, a supervisor at Agave Tequila Y Comida, a Mexican restaurant and bar in Wan Chai. 'Our smoking customers are happy. All our tables have an ashtray.' More than half of the customers in Agave are smokers, Araojo says. 'It's too early to tell whether we have more business or not because January is a quiet month. But if we become a non-smoking place, we may lose some of our regular customers.' Giacomo Pani, general manager of DiVino in Central, has no such concerns, although the wine bar and restaurant has been declared a non-smoking venue. Its sister, Goccia, next door, has been granted an exemption, so diners at DiVino who crave a smoke after a meal need to walk only a few steps to light up. 'We're able to drive people under the same roof to whichever place suits them,' says Pani. He says the ban hasn't hurt business at DiVino, although it has a sizeable smoking clientele. Even so, there's a temptation to turn it back into a smoking establishment. A questionnaire is now being circulated among customers, asking if they would continue to patronise the place if it were non-smoking. 'We try to understand the feelings of our customers,' Pani says. 'At the moment we're not taking any action. If the response [from the survey] is remarkable, we need to do something.' From July 1, 2009, no more eateries will be exempted - except for places where half of the space is outdoors. Is it a daunting prospect for the lucky few who are currently unaffected by the ban? 'No,' Pani says. 'With the quick pace of Hong Kong, by 2009 most people will have adapted to the ban. There will be no shocking change.' Gabet is philosophical about the issue. 'Today we may not see the benefit of it and there may be an emotional reaction. But we shouldn't panic because in the long term things are going to be positive.'