AFTER a year of so-called "educational enforcement', the ban on smoking at eateries is now in full force.
Under the law, those caught smoking in eateries will be fined RM250 for the first and second offences, with the compound rate increased to RM350 for the third offence.
Similar compound rates will be imposed on eatery owners who fail to display no smoking signs or provide smoking amenities like ashtrays.
Within the first five days of the full enforcement, over 2,000 notices were issued to errant smokers and eatery owners with compounds amounting to over half a million ringgit.
In Sarawak, enforcement officers inspected 3,867 food premises from Jan 1 to 6, issuing 137 notices for smoking in eateries, 26 for failing to display the no smoking sign and five for providing amenities for smoking.
On the one hand, it's good that enforcement is being carried out to ensure compliance with the law.
On the other hand, it's disheartening that smokers are still lighting up at eateries and what's worse, pleading ignorance despite a full year of being warned about the ban and its penalties. Quoting the Health Ministry's disease control division director, Bernama reported that many of those who were issued notices responded that they did not know about the ban - a claim which seems to point more to indifference or disregard for the ban than actual ignorance.
In fact, during the educational enforcement period last year, it was not uncommon to see patrons lighting up at tables in eateries in Kuching in spite of no smoking signs. This is the state capital we're talking about, where people really have no excuse not to know about the ban.
Now that the time for warnings is over, strict and consistent enforcement is needed for the smoking ban to be effectively implemented.
But then the Housing and Local Government Ministry got involved by announcing that eatery and restaurant could provide designated smoking areas beyond three metres from the nearest table. The response to this has been decidedly mixed, with medical professionals leading the way in calling it a step backward in anti-smoking efforts.
"The whole of Malaysia is a smoking zone except for 23 prohibited areas, such as food outlets, hospitals, government offices and commuter stations.
"Almost in 90% of the country, you can smoke. So, it doesn't make sense, and it is a waste of taxpayers' money to designate smoking zones," Malaysian Public Health Physicians' Association president Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar was reported saying on Friday (Jan 10).
Similarly, Kuching North mayor Datuk Junaidi Reduan made the point that since smokers could light up three metres away from the nearest table, why was there a need to designate special areas for smoking?
"A designated area means you can only smoke in that area. Does it mean that beyond three metres, you cannot smoke except in the designated area?" he said in an interview, adding that he needed further clarification on the matter.
Nevertheless, the smoking ban at eateries is clear enough: no lighting up in the premises and those who want to smoke must do so at least three metres away from the nearest table.
Perhaps the Housing and Local Government Ministry could empower local authorities to inspect food premises and enforce the ban alongside Health Ministry personnel. This would be more useful in ensuring widespread enforcement and compliance, rather than allowing designated smoking areas.
Let's not send mixed signals that will affect the effectiveness of the ban but focus instead on enforcing it until it becomes an accepted practice not to smoke in eateries.