Local men smoke cigarettes in Shanghai, China (File photo)
Several countries in Asia are taking steps to cut down on smoking as tobacco use escalates throughout the region, especially among young women. Megan Larson reports from Hong Kong on the city's anti-smoking bill, as well as recent efforts to kick the habit in Japan, India and elsewhere.

The cigarette smoke was thick in this Hong Kong pub until last August when the management banned smoking indoors. Now smokers step outside for a puff, keeping the air inside the Dublin Jack free of haze.

Most of the bar's patrons, even those who like to smoke now and then, say they do not mind the change. "I do not like smoky rooms, so it makes a difference," said one.

The government wants smoke-free environments like this one to become the norm in Hong Kong next year when proposed anti-smoking legislation is expected to take effect.

The bill, which was introduced to the legislative council last month, seeks to ban smoking in bars, restaurants and entertainment venues, and to restrict tobacco advertising.

Dr. Homer Tso, chairman of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, believes a ban is imperative to the health of Hong Kong's bar workers and patrons. "The argument is simple: that second-hand smoke harms everyone - smokers and non-smokers. So in an environment where there exists second-hand smoke then there is the danger of health being compromised," he said.

Smoking - and the health risks associated with it - has become a critical issue all over Asia because of the rising number of smokers and the significant costs of treating smoking-related illness, such as cancer and heart disease.

The World Health Organization reports that half of the world's one-point-four billion smokers live in Asia. The western Pacific region, which includes China and Hong Kong, has the highest numbers of new smokers taking up the habit.

"We fear that tobacco companies are really targeting young women in these regions, especially as young populations become more westernized, [cigarettes] seem to be what they think is more sophisticated and they take up the habit," said Burke Fishburn, the WHO's tobacco-free initiative advisor in the western Pacific.

The highest smoking rates in Asia can be found in developing countries such as China and Indonesia.

WHO statistics show tobacco consumption rising more than three percent a year in the developing world while citizens in developed countries such as the United States and Australia are kicking the habit. Mr. Fishburn says the lack of restrictions and the cheap price of cigarettes exacerbate the problem in many poor countries.

"Lots of advertising is allowed," he said. "Because of lax regulations the prices on tobacco products are quite low, taxes are quite low, which makes them quite affordable for young people and for poor people."

Following passage of the WHO's treaty on tobacco control, many Asian countries have begun trying to discourage citizens from lighting up.

India outlawed smoking in public places last year and recently extended the ban to movies and television shows. In Japan, the royal family announced recently that it is ending a tradition of giving cigarettes as gifts to officials, staff and palace volunteers. Singapore will extend its ban on smoking to more public areas this year and the city of Jakarta plans to restrict smoking next year.

But the battle against tobacco use is expected to be slow going in China, where the WHO says one of every three cigarettes is consumed and 3,000 people die every day from smoking related disease. Part of the problem is the challenge of communicating the dangers of smoking to millions of poorly educated people in rural areas.

In Hong Kong - as in New York and Ireland when they proposed their smoking bans - the plan to stamp out cigarettes indoors has met with resistance from bar and restaurant owners, who believe it will drive away customers.

The legislator representing Hong Kong's catering industry, Tommy Cheung, prefers a slower approach. "The catering trade, which I represent, believes that for the good of Hong Kong we should ban smoking in restaurants," he said. "But that should be a more long-term goal where you do it gradually. My constituency believes that if you have an outright ban it will be bad for business."

However, as more people seek out hotels and restaurants that are free of cigarette smoke, non-smoking signs are actually seen by many in the tourism trade as the gold standard.

That is why the Dublin Jack pub went smoke free. But the pub's managing director Noel Smyth says smoking bans do not work for every establishment - and, in fact, in two other bars he runs, smoking is permitted.

He says Hong Kong's bars lack the outdoor space for smokers that can be found in other cities.

It is unclear what shape the smoking bill will take next year, as the committee in charge of the legislation met for the first time last month. Mr. Cheung says the catering industry faces an uphill battle.

Representatives for Hong Kong's Health, Welfare and Food Bureau say they appreciate the catering industry's concerns and have written certain concessions into the bill, including a 90-day transition period.

But those in favor of the ban note that restaurants in other cities that have imposed smoking bans, such as New York, did not suffer financially. New York's bar receipts were actually up a year after the ban took effect.