Why Macau is imposing casino smoking ban despite industry woes

July 02, 2015 15:04
Macau casino staff already find it hard to ask customers to retire to a smoking room for a puff; now they'll have to ask them to leave the casino to smoke. Photo: Bloomberg

Defying intense opposition from the gambling industry, the Macau government will impose a ban on smoking in every part of its casinos.

It is a harsh blow to operators facing their worst slowdown in five years.

On Tuesday, the Executive Council completed its revision of the amendments to the smoking regulations.

It extends an existing ban on smoking in the main gambling areas to VIP rooms and closes existing airport-style smoking lounges.

The revision also bans the use of electronic cigarettes and cigars.

It increases the fines on violators to between 1,500 patacas (US$188) and 200,000 patacas from between 400 patacas and 100,000 patacas.

This means that, if he wishes to smoke, a gambler will have to leave not only the table but the whole casino and light up outside.

The revision now goes to the Legislative Assembly. Since the handover in 1999, it has never rejected a proposal from Exco.

“We accept that this measure can affect the economy and the jobs of some people,” Leong Heng-teng, convener of Exco, said at a news conference.

“But our duty is to protect the health of the residents.”

Lei Chin-ion, director of the Health Bureau, said: “Predictions tell us that the economy will be hit by these measures. But there are different predictions.

"We are concerned with public health, and without health, there is no economy at all.”

The casino operators have been campaigning hard against the revision.

Their most important clientele are mainland Chinese.

Of the mainland's 1.3 billion people, 350 million smoke, including 60 per cent of adult males.

These are the main users of the casinos, including the VIP rooms, which account for the most important segment of revenue.

The operators argue that, while in the mass rooms there are thousands of gamblers and staff exposed to cigarette smoke, the numbers in the VIP rooms are limited, and staff working there accept the risk of inhaling smoke as part of the job, preferring that to losing their employment.

They also argue that the government should support them during the worst slowdown since the end of the gambling monopoly in 2002.

Figures released by the government Wednesday showed a drop in gambling revenue last month for the 13th month in a row.

The June figure was 17.36 billion patacas, down 36.2 percent from a year earlier, the biggest year-on-year drop this year and the largest monthly fall since November 2010.

In the first six months of this year, gambling revenue was 121.645 billion patacas, down 37 percent.

The biggest factor in the fall is the anticorruption campaign launched more than two years ago by President Xi Jinping, in which Macau has made access to the casinos available to Chinese security forces and investigators.

The industry says antismoking measures are another factor.

It argues that the measures should be introduced gradually, balancing the health needs of the staff with the demands of the customers.

The industry points to airports where smoking is banned but smoking rooms are provided.

A study published earlier this year by KPMG that was commissioned by the six largest casinos found that, if the total ban is implemented, the number of VIPs going to Macao will fall 17 percent and the length of their stay will fall 24 percent.

It said they will choose casinos elsewhere where smoking is permitted.

Chou Siu-fong, chairman of the Macao Workers Alliance, representing those employed in the casinos, said its members opposed smoking rooms in the VIP areas.

“It is difficult for us to ask the VIPs, especially the very rich ones, to go to the smoking rooms to smoke," Chou said.

"It is hard to enforce, for fear of offending these important clients.”

People in Macau are surprised by this measure taken against the interests of its most important industry at a time when it is in difficulty and with large numbers of new hotel rooms coming on stream in the next three years.

“The Macau government does nothing without the approval of Beijing,” said Leung Ming-kei, a business consultant.

“I see the hand of Beijing in this law. The mainland is implementing the strongest antitobacco legislation since 1949. Macau is following suit.

"Xi Jinping must be a non-smoker.”

On June 1, the city of Beijing imposed a ban on smoking in public places, with fines of up to 10,000 yuan (US$1,610) for owners who fail to stop people lighting up.

In May, the excise tax on wholesale cigarettes was raised to 11 percent from 5 percent, the first increase in six years.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.