Arguing from the standpoint of human rights protection, leaders of anti-smoking activist groups and the tobacco industry remained in a deadlock yesterday over the proposed Tobacco Hazard Prevention Act to ban smoking in all public and indoor places.
Ray Dawn, chairman of Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation, said that although he agrees with the concept on prohibiting smoking in all public areas, some aspects of the proposed bill amounted to blatant violation of smokers' rights.
"Each person, including smokers, has the right to determine how they want to treat their own bodies," said Dawn, a non-smoker who quit years ago when his wife became pregnant.
"A person should retain the right to open a smokers only restaurant and a non-smoker can exercise his or her right to choose whether or not to eat in that restaurant," he said.
Dawn also said the bill has many unreasonable elements such as mandatory gruesome graphic warnings on each pack of cigarettes and at the store counters to deter smokers from lighting up.
"Many store owners are concerned that the horrendous pictures will frighten little children and damage the revenues of their businesses," he said. "Besides, some smart businessmen will most likely invent a way to cover up the pictures."
He went on to say that the smoking ban will ultimately hurt the restaurant industry and even encourage chain smokers to buy smuggled contraband products.
Tobacco makers in Taiwan are already striving to reduce the nicotine and the tar levels in their products in response to health concerns, Dawn noted.
"For example, we are pushing for menthol cigarettes. They produce the same sensation without all the harmful side effects," Dawn said.
However, Yao Si-yuan, lead counsel for he John Tung Foundation, an anti-smoking advocate group, refuted Dawn's claim saying that in addition to tar and nicotine, cigarettes contains at least 200 other hazardous substances.
"According to various medical reports, mild or light cigarettes are as just as harmful and addictive as regular ones," said Yao. "This is the precise reason why anti-smoking initiatives of the World Health Organization prohibit tobacco makers from using such claims to advertising their products as they could be misleading."
"Of course smokers have a right to smoke, but our argument is that they do not have to right to choose when and where to indulge in their habit," Yao said.
"For example, I have the right to walk but it is illegal and unsafe for me and others if I chose to exercise my right by walking on the freeway," he continued.
Yao added that smokers have every right to puff away if they choose behind the closed doors of their private homes, but do not have the right to subject others, smokers or non-smokers, to secondhand smoke.
Yao also referred to the "smuggling theory" as the oldest fallacy in the book.
"Some lifelong cigarette addicts might choose to buy cigarettes on the black market," Yao said. "However it is a very inconvenient and expensive option for casual smokers and young people," Yao claimed. He also bashed the idea of "smokers-only restaurants" saying that it is both ineffective and unrealistic.
"Does that mean a father who is a smoker can never eat in the restaurant with the rest of his non-smoking family?"
Despite their differences in opinion and interests, both men said a price hike on all tobacco-related products is one of the ways to help curb smoking in Taiwan. Tseng, a smoker for more than 20 years, said the only way he would consider quitting is if the price of cigarettes triples.
Cigarette prices in Taiwan are among the lowest in world, ranging from NT$40 to NT$50 (roughly US$1.50) per pack.
A survey conducted by the Bureau of Health Promotion indicated that smoking has tripled in the 15- to 17-year-old age group in the last three years. The number of female smokers has increased from 5.9 percent to 9.8 percent, while the number of male smokers has decreased from 42 to 38.5 percent.
Smoking-related illness is the sixth cause of death in Taiwan, resulting in approximately 5,500 fatalities per year, according to the Department of Health.