Hong Kong - ways to beat the smoking ban..

July 13, 2010 - Since the government imposed a complete ban on smoking in bars and nightclubs effective July 1, 2009, some bar owners have complained they've lost up to 20 percent of their trade. But not everyone is hurting - not the ones who simply moved upstairs and out of sight.

Like the trail of smoke rising from the burning fag, smokers have headed upward as well - high into the fastness of the upper storeys of Hong Kong high-rises.
"People moved to high-rise bars; who knows what goes on there?" said Grant Baird, group operations manager for the Epicurean Group. Part of his job is to help oversee more than two dozen establishments in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

The ban proved a boon for upstairs watering holes. Not only did the owners avoid the premium rents, which hit a 20-year high for ground floor establishments, the high-rise aeries took many customers away from the street level joints.

Upstairs bars seemed to be effectively above the law, according to El Grande Holdings marketing director Rhys Adams, who helps oversee more than a dozen local establishments. "I've been in plenty of upstairs bars in Causeway Bay and I've heard plenty of stories that smoking is widely prevalent in bars on second floor of buildings. The ban is completely unenforced and the government is only looking at ground bars," he said.

Although the ban has tied the hands of ground floor operators, Baird said there have been some benefits. "The environment is better in our bars. My staff is healthier and there's a noticeable drop in staff sick leave," he said. But savings on repair costs and staff productivity hasn't offset drops of 10 to 15 percent in business to their roadside operations such as their bars along Lan Kwai Fong, he said.

The smoking ban has been a boon for upstairs operators with balconies or patios. It is not illegal to smoke outdoors, i.e., patios, so long as it is not enclosed on three sides, according to the law.

The only way to level the playing field between ground floor establishments without patios and upstairs outlets in terms of enforcement was to recruit more inspectors because the government did not have enough people enforcing the ban, he said.

"If the government wants to start enforcing the law equitably, it needs to follow up on complaints and start going in and checking these places randomly," he said.

Though roughly 3,330 officers of the Housing, Food and Environmental Health and Leisure and Cultural Services departments were authorized in September 2009 to issue HK$1,500 (192.942 USD) fixed penalty tickets, the three departments have only issued 83 tickets during the first half of the year, with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department having only two prosecutions despite a force of 2,200 officers.

There are only 99 dedicated Tobacco Control Office inspectors, responsible for enforcing the ban at the city's thousands of bars, restaurants, saunas and Mahjong parlors. The Tobacco Control Office has received 6,900 complaints and has carried out 10,200 inspections this year. By the end of May, only 83 fix-penalty tickets had been issued to smokers in bars, and none to those in saunas or nightclubs.

A spokesman for the department said it did not conduct random checks, but would "conduct blitz operations in response to complaints about smoking violations." It takes minutes to light, smoke and extinguish a cigarette, so chances are the culprits are long gone before the law arrives.

"Given the wide scope of the no smoking areas, immediate response to a smoking complaint by inspection is not practicable. Upon receipt of a complaint, the Tobacco Control Office will arrange a surprise inspection to the venue concerned. On average, investigations of complaints are completed within days," a Department of Health spokesman said.

As the smoking ban penalizes smokers and not venue operators, the latter are divided in their attitude towards the practice.

"It is the smoker's fault and as an operator you're under some difficult pressure trying to get people to not smoke. It puts operators in a difficult position because customers say they'll just move on to another establishment where sympathetic owners turn a blind eye," said Adams.

A manager of a Knutsford Terrace operation said he had little choice but to consent to smoking on his premises. "If I don't let them smoke, they'll just go somewhere else and in the end, I'm not liable. It's not a very tough decision," he said.

But some businesses are discovering enforcing the ban and losing die-hard smokers isn't the end of the world. The Sahara Mezz Bar, once known for its shishas (Hookah (Shisha or Sheesha, Narghile, water pipe)) is now more popular than ever for its Moroccan fare. "You lose some, you win some. We still have shishas up front on the porch, but we've got more dining and business meeting clients. They're sta ying and paying more for dinner and that has pushed up profits. The place smells nicer and its attracting a better crowd too," manager Dody Wakim said.

Despite complaints, the government's campaign against tobacco products, which has included 300 percent taxes and a cap on duty free purchases, has started paying off. The city's smoking rate dropped from 23 percent in 1982 to 12 percent in 2008, one of the lowest in the world.

Reference: HongKong Focus Smoke rising a year after ban by Timothy Chui (HK Edition), China Daily, 7/10/2010.

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