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U-turn on Smoking Lounges

Smoking lounges can be maintained in casinos. Following implementation of the full-smoking ban bill. Despite the fact that the original bill features zero rooms. Changes reflect gaming operators’ proposed ‘high-standard’ cubicles. With a survey claiming 60 pct of casino workers acquiesce.

Yesterday, the MSAR Government announced it is to alter the drafted bill proposing a full smoking ban in casinos to allow the establishment of smoking lounges.
In a press briefing held yesterday, the Health Bureau explained that the amendment to the bill aligns with the latest survey results conducted by the University of Macau (UM) commissioned by the six local gaming operators.
The study, which was submitted to the Macau SAR Government in December and presented to the public last Tuesday, concludes that 60 per cent of the 14,301 gaming and non-gaming employees interviewed agree with ‘solutions that allow smoking lounges’ in casinos.
The Bureau’s vice-Director, Cheang Seng Ip, said yesterday that the proposed guidelines for improving smoking lounges presented by the casino operators – prepared by PolyU Technology and Consultancy Co. Limited (PTeC), a professional service branch of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University – “offer high standards, which are viable and feasible.”
While acknowledging that the UM study presents important suggestions for high standards to be integrated into smoking lounges, the Tobacco Prevention and Control Office of the Bureau also had a say in the matter.
Tang Chi Hou, the Office Director, presented a series of recommendations, comprising eleven standards and measures (see box) for the management of smoking lounges based upon international experiences gleaned from places such as Italy and Mexico.
Questioned about the position of Secretary for Social Affairs and Culture Alexis Tam Chong Weng on the Bureau’s recommendations, Cheang explained that they have already submitted the proposal for the Secretary’s evaluation, with discussions occurring between the latter and the Health Bureau. It is now pending approval from the Secretary.

Nothing lasts forever
Questioned on whether he expects the bill amending the Tobacco Prevention and Control law would be approved at the Legislative Assembly, Mr. Cheang said he trusts his colleagues working on the task, adding, however, that it is not within the scope of the Health Bureau to say if the new law, which passed its first reading in 2015, will be approved by the end of the legislative term.
“The government highlights the fact that the application of a full-smoking ban in indoor public spaces constitutes a final working goal on tobacco-smoking control, which should be progressively fulfilled,” said Cheang Seng Ip.
But he added that progress would not be so fast. “The setting up of smoking lounges with high air quality standards corresponds to the politics of progressive control of tobacco-smoking,” he claimed.
This means that smoking will very likely continue to be partially allowed in casino facilities albeit under stricter control, more frequent inspection, and tighter criteria for improvement in technical design.
Both health officers expressed that the government agrees changes and implementation of the amendments to the current law should be conducted “in phases.”
“We have to consider several viewpoints, and not ignore that the changes introduced [since 2014] have already produced improvements,” said Mr. Tang.
In fact, according to the UM study, 87 per cent of survey respondents stated that “the air quality in their work environment has improved since the introduction of smoking lounges in mass gaming areas in October 2014.”

For smokers only
According to the new proposed amendments to the drafted bill, smoking activities in VIP rooms would be restricted to assigned zones. “VIP rooms will only have smoking lounges. They will no longer be [full] smoking areas,” confirmed Cheang.
Smoking is currently prohibited on the mass gaming floors of local casinos, and is only permitted in smoking lounges and VIP rooms.
Having passed its first reading in 2015, the government-backed bill initially proposed banning smoking in all indoor areas of gaming venues, in addition to eliminating current smoking lounges.
Questioned whether there would be limitations on the number of smoking lounges permitted in casinos, Mr. Cheang said there is currently no cap on the number, with the number dependent upon the ratio between size of gaming floor and smoking area rather than on the operator’s own preference.
The health official also stressed that “the only activity allowed in smoking lounges is smoking. No gambling devices will be allowed in those areas.”

The Paradox
In fact, local gaming operators has been awaiting the government’s reaction to the survey presented in December 2016, hoping the administration acknowledges that a full smoking ban may be financially disadvantageous.
“A full ban without careful consideration of the city’s long-term sustainable development would hamper the regional competitiveness of the Macau gaming industry,” said Ambrose So, CEO and Executive Director of Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (SJM), on behalf of the six casino operators in a press conference held earlier this week.
Speaking to the press yesterday, the Vice-Director of the Health Bureau said that the next step in the free-smoke society bill may not entail “a total prohibition of smoking,” since it will be a progressive process.
In another sign that the government may indeed not be considering implementing the full smoking ban in casinos during this legislative term, Mr. Cheang said that the grace period requested from casino operators to proceed with improvements in smoking lounges of between 12 to 18 moths “may be too long.”
The President of the Legislative Assembly, Ho Iat Seng, commented on Tuesday that the government-backed bill proposing a full smoking ban on casinos would not be abandoned, even if the establishment of smoking lounges was allowed, “only revised.”

The eleven commandments
1    Smoking inside casinos is only allowed in designated smoking areas
2    Casino operators can request authorisation from the Health Bureau to establish smoking lounges in their casinos.
3    The establishment of smoking lounges should comply with the existing Security Regulation Against Fire and the General Regulation of Urban Construction.
4    Smoking lounges should be located in separate areas within casino facilities, with coating over the ceiling, walls, and floor capable of hindering smoke outflow.
5    In smoking rooms, the principle of ‘Low-level entry and high-level exit’ must apply, according to which the smoke should be expelled via independent conduit directly to the outside of the building.
6    Entrance doors to smoking lounges should be sliding doors with an automatic opening and closing device.
7    With regard to adjacent gaming areas, smoking lounges should be kept under negative pressure, according to the following:
– When the smoking lounge door is open, the inflow of air should be higher than 0.1m/s.
– When the smoking lounge door is closed, the negative pressure should be higher than -5 Pascal.
8    In addition to an alarm device, smoking lounge doors should display visual signage displaying the room’s normal operation, according to the following:
– When the smoking lounge door is closed, negative pressure should be higher than -5 Pascal.
– The smoking lounge door cannot remain open for more than 1 minute.
9    No gambling devices, electrical or mechanical machines, including slot machines, can be placed in smoking lounges, nor any activity other than the act of smoking can be practiced in such areas.
10    It is forbidden to post or place any kind of text in smoking lounges that promotes the consumption of tobacco and the act of smoking; namely, advertising campaigns for tobacco and tobacco products.
11    In the door in front of the smoking lounge an area should be targeted for the display of information about tobacco-induced ill effects, and the cessation of smoking provided by the Health Bureau.


Alexis Tam: Awaiting operators’ response
Speaking on the sidelines of the plenary session at the Legislative Assembly, the Secretary for Social Affairs and Culture, Alexis Tam Chong Weng, said he still does not know if casino operators will agree with the suggestions of the Health Bureau on the smoking lounges.
“We have still not taken a decision concerning [the changes sparked by the] study presented by the casino operators. The Health Bureau presented a suggestion to the concessionaires requesting them to raise standards even higher. We are now awaiting a response on the part of the concessionaires,” the official said.
Asked about whether the proposal of the Health Bureau contradicts the law amendment’s original intention, Mr. Tam replied: “As I said in the past, if the six casino concessionaires [are] able to present a better suggestion, establishing smoking lounges that fulfil the requirements, we would consider that possibility, which we are doing now.”
Meanwhile, the Secretary believes there is still enough time to work on the latest proposal before the end of this legislative term in August.

OPINION

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