Days numbered for cigar bars
June 6, 2005
Cigar merchants and aficionados are demanding an exemption from the blanket ban on smoking in all enclosed public places, arguing that the move is „barbaric“ and would ruin thriving businesses.
They say that the cigar business and enjoyment of cigars are dependent on providing an environment to gather and taste cigars, and in such enclosed establishments the non-smoking public is rarely affected.
„Most customers prefer to sit down in the cigar shops and try them before buying. If smoking is banned in all indoor places our whole operation must then be discontinued,“ Kennith Wong, general manager of Pacific Cigars Hong Kong, said.
The company operates six cigar shops and lounges in the territory and is one of several key players in the industry which, according to Wong, sells about 1 million premium cigars a year. The luxury items cost between HK$100 to HK$200 each.
Over 20 cigar shops and about 40 cigar bars in the territory would face a 70 percent cut in business or even closure, Wong said, and more than 100 jobs would be affected by the tobacco control laws.
The Smoking (Public Health) (Amendment) Bill 2005, set to come into effect next year, will make all covered public places in Hong Kong, including bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues smoke-free.
Affected venues may be given a grace period of 90 days to prepare.
„A democratic society shouldn’t be like this,“ a manager of a hotel cigar shop and lounge, who declined to be named, said. His shop has about 1,000 regular customers. „We support the ban in restaurants, but here we don’t disturb others. It’s not illegal, so why not give us a choice? Vehicles let out hazardous fumes, so why not ban private cars? “
Kenneth Li, 37, said: „We are well-mannered and considerate people. How often do you see someone smoking a cigar in a busy restaurant? For us [lounging in cigar shops] is a culture, it’s a social activity.“
Li’s companions, most of them men over 35, criticized the amendment bill as „barbaric“ and „authoritarian.“
But although cigar shops and bars do not force passive smoking on the non-smoking public, they do put the health of serving staff at risk. „We can downsize the staff and introduce more self-service. It could be done,“ Wong said.
But Lo Wing-lok, chairman of the People’s Health Action and member of the Council on Smoking and Health, said he sees no reason for exemptions.
„Many of these cigar shops and bars are in hotels and are a part of the central air ventilation system. Saying no one else is affected is wrong,“ Lo said. „Any exemptions would weaken the health warning against something that is obviously a public health hazard.“
Pacific Cigar’s Wong protested: „Hong Kong is running much faster than other places in the world,“ quoting exemptions for cigar bars in New York where in New York City laws also allow restaurant owners to create separate ventilated smoking rooms.
Last year, Ireland and Norway banned smoking in bars and restaurants, while recently Sweden joined in the ban for smoking in restaurants.
Scotland and England plan to ban smoking in enclosed public places from 2006.
In Hong Kong, catering and entertainment businesses have protested against the one-off full ban, which will affect 10,000 bars, restaurants and entertainment premises such as karaoke lounges, nightclubs, bathhouses and mah-jong parlors.
They expect business to drop by more than 30 per cent after the ban is imposed and fear it will lead to business closures and staff layoffs.
The ban also covers all 2,000 education institutions and tens of thousands of workplaces. About 15 percent of Hong Kong’s adult population smokes. The government estimates that only 0.3 percent, or about 2,300 of the 867,000 daily smokers smoke cigars and pipes.
But cigar lovers say the number is much larger than that and could be up to 30,000.
A spokeswoman from Philip Morris, the largest tobacco seller in Hong Kong with over 55 per cent of the market share, said: „We fully support the bill’s principles, but we believe the government should give entertainment venues the flexibility to decide how to accommodate their smoking customers.“
A spokeswoman from the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau did not respond to questions concerning the potential negative economic impact the ban is feared to trigger, saying only that the smoking ban has not affected the businesses of the tourism or hospitality industries in other jurisdictions including New York, California and New Zealand. „The 800 no-smoking restaurants in Hong Kong have also had very positive experiences,“ she said.