Hong Kong’s anti-smoking drive begins to pay off
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Hong Kong’s anti-smoking drive begins to pay off

I used to complain a lot about smokers on the streets, those unmindful of the potential health hazards they’ve become, but not that much these days. Not only because I seldom hit the streets lately, but statistically there are fewer people lighting up outdoors. With 11.1 per cent of people aged 15 or above smoking, Hong Kong is poised to become the world’s first “smoke-free” city.

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A large 'No smoking' sign at Causeway Bay's Victoria Park in Chinese, English, Indonesian and Tagalog.

There are different versions on how one is defined as a smoker. The government defines a smoker as one who smokes at least once a day; to insurers, the title is already tagged on someone who consumed tobacco at least once in the past 12 months.

The figure was the result of a survey of 13,375 households conducted by the Census and Statistics Department from October to December last year. The steady decline in the number of smokers can easily be attributed to a number of measures the city has implemented.

First, the government has continuously expanded the locations considered off-limits to smokers. Since July 2007, no person shall smoke or carry a lighted cigarette, cigar, or pipe in indoor workplaces, most public places such as restaurants (after exemptions were lifted), public parks, beaches and transportation terminals. By September 2009, violators are slapped a fixed-fine of HK$1,500 (US$192.8), making it at par with other violations such as spitting or littering. There are still gray areas, such as how the government will implement fines to non-residents and short-term visitors as offenders are allowed up to 21 days to settle their fines. Nevertheless, these measures provide great relief to non-smokers who are used to exposure to second-hand smoke.

Second, the Hong Kong government has imposed hefty taxes on cigarette products. Right after a seven-hour deliberation among city legislators, the cost of a pack of cigarettes at HK$50 (US$6.41) comprised 70 percent tobacco tax. It was a landslide decision to impose the tax – 33 for vs. eight against. But opposers said the idea was discriminatory and ignores the poor, citing smoking as one of the few forms of leisure they have left. The rising cost of cigarettes at shops in the city also encouraged smuggling, they said.

No smoking ads are also pervasive across the territory. From television broadcasts on buses and newspapers to posters at residential estate lobbies, as well as YouTube videos, smoking is generally treated as an unpopular habit that isolates the smoker from the society.

A territory is considered smoke-free once the ratio between smokers and non-smokers reach 5 per cent or less, a similar target imposed by developed economies such as New Zealand and Finland. As Hong Kong tries to squeeze the ratio and approach that “elite” status, tobacco companies are expected to fight for their rights and may take legal actions against these restrictions. Looking back at the Hong Kong government’s efforts, not everyone is pleased but, at least to me, it’s done many people a favor. We’ve already suffered from roadside pollution and accused factories at Pearl River Delta many times for record pollution levels. Cigarette smoke is the last thing we’d like to add in our air quality woes.

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