The Office of the Ombudsman slammed the authorities in charge of implementing the government’s tobacco control policy for not being aggressive enough in their enforcement actions.
In a report released on Thursday, the watchdog noted that it has received complaints from time to time about the government’s ineffectiveness in preventing people from lighting up in no-smoking areas.
Authorities have been accused of failing to curb illegal smoking despite introducing some laws more than 10 years ago, resulting in a situation where some no-smoking areas are existent only in name, it said.
Saying that it had conducted a direct investigation into the issue in the wake of complaints, the Ombudsman called on officials to improve their enforcement practices so as to save the public from the nuisance of second-hand smoke.
The agencies that were called out for their lapses included the Tobacco Control Office (TCO) of the Department of Health, the Food and Health Bureau (FHB) and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.
Investigation showed there were multiple inadequacies in three main areas in the enforcement against smoking offences, including enforcement mechanism, coordination mechanism and legislature, the Ombudsman said.
The watchdog said its probe revealed, among other things, that the number of fixed penalty tickets issued by the TCO during night shifts was only about one-fourth to one-third of those issued during daytime in each of the past four years.
This suggests that there were insufficient inspections at night, the hours when illegal smoking is often observed in bars and restaurants.
The Ombudsman scrutinized TCO’s duty roster records and found that no officers were deployed to perform night shift duty (after 6:30 pm) on all public holidays and Sundays and on several non-public holidays in December 2016.
In November that year, officers were deployed to perform night shift duty on only four Thursdays or Fridays, days on which places of entertainment are usually packed.
Such arrangements suggested that the TCO had not deployed any officers to conduct inspections during certain peak time of smoking offences, thus missing the opportune time for enforcement, according to the Ombudsman.
It urged the TCO to respond to complaints about illegal smoking more actively. The watchdog noted that the agency’s internal guideline that stipulates that officials should conduct the first inspection within 21 days of receipt of a complaint is far too lax.
Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing pointed out that the persistently high turnover rate of tobacco control inspectors, which stood at 16.3 percent in 2015-16, is also worrying. She called on the TCO to find ways to tackle the problem.
As for the FHB and the LCSD, the Ombudsman criticized both for failing to properly coordinate enforcement of tobacco control.
It noted that the LCSD had merely brought 60 prosecutions in 2016, compared to 213 complaints received.
In addition, as cases showed that some government departments could not even properly handle the illegal smoking problems in their own offices, the Ombudsman asked them to set a good example for the public.
Among other recommendations, the Ombudsman suggested that the government should consider introducing tobacco control requirements in the licensing conditions of places of entertainment.
Also, criminal liabilities should be considered on venue managers who acquiesce to or condone illegal smoking on their premises.
Responding to the Ombudsman’s report, the FHB and the Department of Health said measures have been taken to strengthen enforcement manpower.
A task force with retired police officers was established in December 2017 to strengthen the enforcement actions, especially during night-time or public holidays, they said, adding that the number of night-time operations increased from 576 in 2016 to 699 last year.
Acknowledging the criticism, however, the government agencies agreed to study the feasibility of adding tobacco control as one of the licensing conditions under different legislations in consultation with the relevant authorities.
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