Food and Health Bureau and Department of Health's response to Ombudsman's direct investigation report

Hong Kong (HKSAR) -      The Food and Health Bureau (FHB) and the Department of Health (DH) welcomed the direct investigation report of the Office of the Ombudsman on the mechanism for handling smoking offences released today (February 1). The FHB and the DH will follow up on the relevant recommendations.

     To safeguard public health, government policy seeks to discourage smoking, contain the proliferation of tobacco use and protect the public from passive smoking. Over the years, the Government has been taking forward various tobacco control measures progressively through a multi-pronged approach comprising publicity, education, legislation, enforcement, taxation and smoking cessation. In 2006, the Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance was amended significantly to expand the statutory smoking ban and strengthen the tobacco control regime regarding advertising and packaging.

Smoking is now banned in all indoor areas of workplaces and public places, including restaurants and bars, as well as many outdoor areas such as leisure grounds and bathing beaches. The smoking ban has also been extended to over 240 public transport facilities since 2009. 

     A spokesman for the FHB said, "The decline in smoking prevalence from 14.0 per cent in 2005 to 10.5 per cent in 2015 is an indicator of the effectiveness of the progressive and multi-pronged approach to tobacco control."

     The Tobacco Control Office (TCO) of the DH, set up in 2001, is responsible for implementing and enforcing the tobacco control legislation, including the smoking ban in statutory no-smoking areas. Every complaint is followed up and investigated, including inspections and enforcement actions. A vigorous enforcement strategy is adopted for premises where smoking offences are prevalent. The TCO also conducts joint inspections and enforcement actions with other law enforcement agencies.

     Responses to the Ombudsman's recommendations are as follows:

(a) To address the increasing demand for enforcement duties, resources have been injected 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. The number of night-time operations increased from 576 in 2016 to 699 in 2017.

(b) The TCO has implemented measures to alleviate manpower wastage, such as conducting regular internal meetings for reviewing work conditions of front-line staff, and offering regular training to front-line staff to facilitate their enforcement duties. The manpower wastage has improved from 26.3 per cent in 2014-15 to 12.7 per cent in 2016-17. The FHB and the DH will continue to review the manpower of the TCO regularly and seek new resources through the existing mechanism when needed.
(c) On inspection arrangements, the TCO has all along conducted operations based on the case details as far as practicable. All inspections upon complaint have been conducted as early as possible, and the first inspection for over 97 per cent of the cases in the past few years was conducted in less than 21 days. The TCO will continue to enhance operation planning, and further shorten the lead time before first inspection where possible.

(d) On prosecution, witness evidence and identification of the alleged smoking offender are key to successful prosecution.

In most cases, the general public is unable to identify the smoking offender. Notwithstanding such limitation, the TCO will continue to encourage witnesses to provide sufficient evidence against offenders.

(e) Currently, Tobacco Control Inspectors (TCIs) wear uniform to conduct inspections for clear identification by the public and to prevent conflict or argument during prosecution. The TCO has also been deploying plainclothes TCIs for reconnaissance and serving as case witnesses when necessary. The TCO will continue to enhance the role of TCIs in plainclothes for certain operations.

     Overall, the TCO will formulate enforcement strategies and measures, in light of the additional manpower resources, to better tackle smoking offences.

     The FHB is responsible for the overall tobacco control policy in Hong Kong with the TCO serving as the implementation agent. An internal circular, "The Smoke-Free Government", was issued in 2009, which outlines the statutory requirements on tobacco control, seeks to remind government bureaux and departments on the concerted efforts required to reduce second-hand smoke and promote a smoke-free government. Over the years, the DH has been working closely with various departments on enforcement of the smoking ban. Other than joint operations, the TCO provides information such as the locations where enhanced inspection is needed, guidelines and advice on enforcing the smoking ban to strengthen enforcement of the smoking ban at different premises. In response to the Ombudsman's report, the FHB and the DH will continue to communicate and liaise with other departments to enhance enforcement of the smoking ban at venues under their purview.

     Under the Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance, venue managers are empowered to request smokers to cease smoking or leave the no-smoking areas under their management, and may call for police assistance if necessary. The TCO reminds venue managers of their authority empowered by the Ordinance through health talks and during inspections. In addition, guidelines have been published to assist venue managers to implement the smoking ban. The Government will keep in view implementation of the smoking ban at different premises and the public's views regarding the liability of venue managers. With different licensing authorities being empowered under different legislations with different obligations and powers, the FHB and the DH have to study the feasibility of adding tobacco control as one of the licensing conditions under different legislations in consultation with the relevant authorities.

     The spokesman reiterated, "Hong Kong has been providing citizens with strong protection from exposure to tobacco smoke in all indoor areas of workplaces and public places as well as many outdoor areas. With the progressive implementation of the various tobacco control measures, the smoking prevalence of Hong Kong has been dropping steadily to a record low." The  FHB and the DH will seriously examine improvement measures for enforcement of the smoking ban including the recommendations by the Ombudsman.

Published on: 2018-02-01

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