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Among the surprises of Hong Kong, long established as a byword for free trade, has been its tendency to be a place where the tobacco industry stubs its corporate toe, and sometimes even comes a real cropper. From an adventure playground for young tobacco advertisers in the early 1980s - the companies must have rated it the last place on earth to stop their energetic entrapment of young people in the nicotine web - it rapidly turned into a public health model for the region. If the industry’s overall judgement was often inaccurate, some of its strategies were wildly off the mark. In challenging government tobacco control plans, for example, the tobacco companies’ use of massive public relations blitzes, tired old rhetoric and patronising, see-though sophistry, as well as bogus "experts" flown in from around the world, cut little ice with legislators; and the blustering, threatening tone of testimony offered to the fledgling legislative council almost certainly did the industry more harm than good.
To public health workers in Hong Kong, therefore, it was all the more amusing to see the tobacco industry make another big mistake there recently. The occasion was the trade exhibition Tobacco Asia Expo, held in January at the gleaming new AsiaWorld-Expo centre at Hong Kong’s international airport. Following the participation of a health representative in a similar show some years ago, such get-togethers are now billed as strictly tobacco industry-only, private shows. Perhaps this strictly enforced secrecy contributed to the mistake.
While the convention and exhibition centre in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district might have been the obvious venue for such a large trade fair, it was rejected on account of its strict smoke-free policy. The organisers were aware that legislators were debating smoke-free legislation for all workplaces, but either thought it would be delayed even longer than the eventual marathon of six years, or that it would be sufficiently watered down to allow smoking areas. But the new law, banning smoking in all workplaces except certain bars and leisure venues, came into force just a few weeks before the start of event (see Hong Kong, China: bad atmosphere for public health. Tobacco Control 2007;16:3–4). Commenting on the fact that AsiaWorld-Expo was now a totally smoke-free venue, one of the organisers, Glenn John, editor of Asia Tobacco magazine, was memorably quoted as saying, "It’s kind of a drag." That’s just the point, Mr John: for the health of the staff that have to work there all day, nowadays it’s no drag at all.