Smoking in non-smoking areas is common: but security experts warn “staring” at offenders, as advised by the government, could breach the law

Staring at smokers could be construed as intimidating or offensive behaviour under Hong Kong law, according to a former Hong Kong police officer who says he was “astounded” at recent instructions from the Department of Health for the public to eyeball smokers who light up in non-smoking areas.

Hong Kong’s health secretary Lo Chung-mau last week urged people to assist the authorities, which, he said, had proven generally incapable of catching smoking offenders.

“When the members of the public see people smoking in non-smoking areas, even if no law enforcement officers can show up immediately, we can stare at the smokers,” he told LegCo.

But James Middleton, a former police officer who now heads environment and anti-tobacco charity Clear The Air, says staring at someone could be classed as “disorderly conduct”, a crime which has been interpreted as “unruly or offensive behaviour” and which needs not involve violence.

He also says the staring could constitute a “breach of the peace” an offence which itself is not violent in nature but could cause a violent response.

“[Professor Lo] might be well meaning but he does not know the law,” added Middleton.

Smokers have little respect for the ineffective tobacco control authorities: party-goers outside the Discovery Bay pier in Central had pushed a burning cigarette into the mouth of this cardboard warning sign

Some are also concerned the vigilante advice could aggravate tensions in the community. This reporter was recently spat at by an illegal hawker after asking them politely to not smoke in the non-smoking Bauhinia Square, highlighting the potential dangers of placing greater tobacco control responsibility on the general public rather than with the proper authorities.

In Hong Kong, tobacco control is the remit of the Tobacco and Alcohol Control Office (TACO), a unit long derided for its ineffective strategies and tactics in fighting illegal smoking.

At parks or mall stairwells where TACO operations have been observed, officers in recognisable brown and yellow uniforms arrive in large groups of at least four and announce their presence before moving towards smokers. Those smoking will swiftly extinguish cigarettes and officers will move on: TACO will then write to complainants saying “no illegal smoking was observed”.

In one case of repeated illegal smoking by bus captains at a major public transport interchange, TACO said the area behind the bus captain’s hut where staff smoked was, in fact, the border of the non-smoking area, rendering the gazetted no-smoking area meaningless. Likewise TACO has refused to take action against those sitting on the wall of Cornwall Street Park and using that park as an ashtray, with authorities claiming the smokers are technically within Festival Walk property as they sit on the wall.

The head of TACO, Dr Fung Ying, refused to answer questions on TACO’s ineffectiveness at a recent press conference, and follow-up questions were forbidden.

At the event, Fung, wearing a pair of HK$21,000 Roger Vivier shoes, praised the government’s work in reducing smoking prevalence.

But while the government says the overall smoking rate is declining, the number of smokers in Hong Kong in 2021 had only decreased by 32,000 since the last survey in 2017, from 667,500 to 635,500. The number of daily vapers trebled from 0.1% to 0.3% of the population, representing 10,000 more daily vapers than in 2017.

And, with a male smoking prevalence of 50% on the mainland, schemes to import labour for construction and transport may also have a further negative impact on Hong Kong’s smoking rates, experts say.

The government advice for citizens to stare at smokers has attracted international attention and criticism. Netizens in London said it was concerning advice, coming a year after Transport for London put up over 6,000 “anti-staring” posters to combat aggressive or unwanted sexual stares.

A senior police officer in London last year said anyone who witnessed “intense staring” on the London Underground should immediately report it to police.

*This article was written and published from the UK and as such does not fall under Hong Kong’s Newspaper Registration Ordinance*

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