A proposed plan by the authorities to ban smoking in all indoor public areas, such as bars and restaurants, may now go up in smoke.
Taiwan's Health Promotion Administration (HPA) said at the start of the year that it wanted to introduce the measure to protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke.
But it is now backing down from an all-out ban, and exploring an option to let smokers use indoor smoking rooms to be built by nightlife operators and restaurant owners.
Many of these businesses had argued against a blanket ban, saying it would drive away smoking customers. "Most people find it too inconvenient to walk out of the premises to smoke," said Mr K. Lu, who owns Majesty bar in Taipei.
Bars, clubs and restaurants are the last holdouts for smokers - they were left out of a 2009 ban that outlawed smoking in indoor places such as hotel lobbies, government offices and shopping malls.
A plan to submit a draft Bill to the Cabinet or Executive Yuan for approval before tabling it in the Legislative Yuan for debate by lawmakers was pushed back to last month. And HPA is again holding off on the plan, so as to "get more views" on how best to get bar and nightspot operators to build indoor smoking rooms.
Ms Lo Shu-ying, who heads HPA's health education and tobacco control division, told The Straits Times the new plan would be sent to the Health and Welfare Ministry later this month at the earliest.
She said her team needed time to tweak the Bill to accommodate the requests of nightlife operators but, more importantly, to "ensure that we protect the interests and health of non-smokers".
"While we want to seek a consensus to push this Bill through, our primary job is still to ensure we try to make Taiwan a smoke-free place and cut down exposure to second-hand smoke," she noted.
She said the measure is part of an initiative by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has urged governments to push for smoke-free workplaces and public areas. Other places that have stubbed out smoking in all indoor areas include Singapore, Hong Kong and Britain, signatories to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
Last week, Singapore announced that food establishments will no longer be able to apply for smoking corners, and that it will make Orchard Road, the main shopping belt, a smoke-free zone from next year.
Taiwan is not among the 168 signatories of the WHO framework, but it meets the mandatory requirements, including a ban on tobacco advertising and the publication of health warnings on cigarette boxes. It has stubbed out smoking in public places such as parks and public buildings; Taipei recently made bus stops and sidewalks smoke-free zones.
Last year, Taiwan's adult smoking rate stood at 15.3 per cent, down from 19.8 per cent in 2010. But more can still be done, say anti-smoking advocates.
Over 40 per cent of Taiwanese men aged 31 to 50 are smokers, compared with 24.9 per cent in Singapore, 22.5 per cent in Norway, 19.9 per cent in Hong Kong and 19 per cent in New Zealand, says HPA.
Said Ms Lin Ching-li, who is public affairs director of anti-smoking group John Tung Foundation's tobacco control division: "The current law has so many loopholes that allow far too many exceptions, which defeats the purpose of having a smoke-free environment."
She also spoke out against lobbying by tobacco and nightlife industries. "Why should the government bow down to these groups? It should act in the best interests of the people and their health."
Some bars have banned smoking, including the Brass Monkey Bar in Taipei in 2011. Said bartender Ted Huang, 27, a non-smoker: "The air is so much better and makes working here more pleasant. We also do not fall ill as often as before."