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New Year Smoking Ban for Hong Kong

Hong Kong will join the growing number of cities worldwide that ban smoking in indoor workplaces and public areas when a new law comes into effect on January first. Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong.

New Year's Eve will be the last opportunity for Hong Kong smokers to light up in bars or restaurants.

From January 1, Hong Kong's new anti-smoking bill outlaws the habit in all indoor work areas, as well as in public places. These include offices, schools and universities, indoor markets, public beaches and swimming pools, as well as most bars and restaurants.

Some bar and restaurant owners are worried the smoking ban will affect their business.

One owner of a traditional Cantonese restaurant says his customers are mainly senior citizens, many of whom are smokers. He says he is worried they will stay away once the ban comes into effect.

Hong Kong's anti-smoking lobby says the ban is needed to protect peoples' health and help cut down the number of smokers. Currently, about 14 percent of the territory's population of about seven million smokes.

The Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health says smoking kills 5,700 people every year. Direct health care costs due to active and passive smoking, the council says, amount to more than $240 million a year.

The council's chairman, Homer Tso, says the new bill is an important step but more measures are needed to effectively curb smoking in Hong Kong.

"First of all, the whole issue on tobacco taxation. At the moment we feel strongly that tobacco tax in Hong Kong … isn't high enough to deter our young to take up smoking," he said. "The most effective means of deterring young people from taking up smoking is high price."

The new law is among the most restrictive in Asia, and puts Hong Kong in a group that includes such places as Ireland and New York City in banning smoking in bars and restaurants.

For Hong Kong smokers who want to continue lighting up outside their homes after January 1, there is a loophole - they just have to learn the popular Chinese game of mahjong. Mahjong parlors are exempt from the new law until June 2009 - as are adults-only massage parlors and nightclubs.