Hong Kong anti-smoking body hit by manpower shortage and dismal night enforcement

Watchdog also finds that government departments did not address internal cases of staff smoking on premises

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 February, 2018, 5:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 2018, 9:59pm

Hong Kong’s anti-smoking body is facing manpower issues and a high turnover rate of 16 per cent in a “worrying” trend that has led to dismal enforcement, especially at night, according to a government watchdog report.

The Ombudsman, which released its findings on Thursday, also found that government departments even allowed illegal smoking in their own offices, failing to set an example for the public.

According to the report, the Tobacco Control Office under the Department of Health saw a “persistently high turnover rate” of control inspectors, which stood at 16 per cent in 2015-16.

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The office has a headcount of 89 enforcement officers with an actual strength of 79, who conducted an average of 27,000 to 30,000 surprise inspections each year over the past five years.

“Though not insignificant, the number of enforcement actions was hardly enough given the enormous number of statutory no-smoking areas in the territory,” the Ombudsman said in the report.

“More worrying is the persistently high turnover rate ...” it added. “If [the department] cannot find ways to reduce their turnover rate, the effectiveness of enforcement actions would inevitably suffer in the long run.”

In Hong Kong, no-smoking areas include all indoor areas such as restaurants, on public transport, workplaces, cinemas, amusement game centres, shops, malls, supermarkets, banks, bars, and mahjong joints, as well as some outdoor areas like parks.

The Ombudsman urged the department to uncover the reasons for the high turnover rate and study solutions.

The report pointed out that the number of fixed penalty tickets issued by the control office during night shifts was only about a quarter or third of the number of daytime summons.

“However, illegal smoking in bars and restaurants is most prevalent during peak hours at night,” the report said.

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According to the report, there were no officers on night shifts during public holidays, Sundays and several non-public holidays in December 2016.

In the following month, there were only four night shifts during peak periods on Thursdays and Fridays.

Senior investigation officer Anthony Yeung cited the department as saying there were not enough staff to take on more night shifts.

Yeung said the department should devote more resources to address the problem.

In one case cited by the report, a staff member from a government department had complained to the control group of illegal smoking in offices.

When inspectors visited the department premises in question, they detected a strong tobacco smell in the office but did not witness anyone smoking.

The complainant then filed a second report, but officers still could not find the culprits.

“It’s outrageous that some government departments could not even properly handle the illegal smoking problems in their own offices,” Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said.

The report recommended that the control office deploy plain-clothes officers at the scene, and consider imposing penalties on venue managers who allow illegal smoking.

A spokesman for the Food and Health Bureau and Department of Health said the rate of smoking in the city declined from 14 per cent in 2005 to 10.5 per cent in 2015, which showed the effectiveness of tobacco control.

He said a task force with retired police officers was established in December last year to strengthen enforcement, especially during night shifts and on public holidays.

He added that the control office would continue to review the working conditions of staff to alleviate the turnover issue, and it would also enhance the role of plain-clothes officers in operations.