New smoking bans challenge an ingrained way of life
Associated Press in Beijing – Updated on Mar 31, 2008
Deputy Sports Minister Cui Dalin told legislators the Beijing Olympics would inspire Chinese to live healthier lives. He then stepped out into a non-smoking hallway and lit a cigarette.
The recent incident illustrates the uphill battle the country faces as it prepares to take what health advocates hope will be a big step against smoking in what is the world’s biggest tobacco market.
A ban on smoking in most Beijing public places, similar to efforts in Hong Kong and major North American, European and Asian cities, is expected to take effect in May, aimed at meeting the mainland’s pledge of a smoke-free Olympics.
The mainland is home to 350 million smokers – a third of the global total. More than 150 cities already have limited restrictions, but the capital would be the first to ban smoking in all restaurants, offices and schools, said health expert Cui Xiaobo, who helped draft the regulations. The restaurant ban may be limited at first.
“There’s no way it will work,” said Jin Xianchun, a co-owner of Little Jin’s Seafood Restaurant, where diners were smoking up a storm.
“Of course it will affect my business … We will try our best to enforce it, but really…,” she said, shaking her head.
Cigarettes are woven into mainlanders’ daily lives. They are an icebreaker, a way of greeting a friend, and a means of bribery. A night out typically means a good meal and cigarettes paired with baijiu, a clear sorghum liquor with a vicious kick.
Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were heavy smokers, and their favourite brands are as well known as they are: Panda for Deng and Zhonghua (China) for Mao.
Almost 2 trillion cigarettes are sold every year, at prices as low as 1.50 yuan for a pack of 20, complete with a discreet warning on the side of the box that says “Smoking is harmful to your health”. The government estimates 1 million people die of smoking-related deaths annually – projected to double by 2020.
Beijing has had some smoking restrictions since 1995, when the municipal government prohibited lighting up in large public venues such as schools, sports arenas and movie theatres.
The new rules, which the city government is expected to unveil soon, expand the scope to include restaurants, bars, hotels, offices, vacation resorts and all indoor areas of medical facilities, according to a draft released this year.
“The world will be watching Beijing because its success means a big step towards the success of the whole world, given the large smoking population of China,” said Cui Xiaobo, an associate professor at the Capital University of Medical Sciences in Beijing.
Olympic organisers have said they want smoking bans in all hotels serving athletes and all competition venues and restaurants in the Olympic Village by June. Last October, Beijing banned smoking in the city’s 66,000 taxis, threatening drivers with a 200 yuan fine if they are caught.
After a branch of the Meizhou Dongpo restaurant chain banned smoking, revenue dropped by 5 to 8 per cent in the first two months, but picked up as word got out to nonsmokers, deputy manager Guo Xiaodong said.
“Smoke-free restaurant: A mountain forest in the city,” posters in the restaurant say. A man with a pack of cigarettes by his plate grumpily relents when his friend reminds him he can’t light up.
“Some customers didn’t understand why there was a ban in a restaurant – a public place. They think cigarettes and liquor can’t be separated,” Mr Guo said.
In 2005, China ratified World Health Organisation rules urging the country, within three years, to restrict tobacco advertising and sponsorship, put tougher health warnings on cigarettes, raise tobacco prices and taxes, curb second-hand smoke, prohibit cigarette sales to minors, and clamp down on smuggling.
“The problem is there are commercial interests that make it hard,” said Sarah England, who heads the tobacco control department of the organisation’s Beijing office.
She was referring to the state-run tobacco industry, which made 388 billion yuan last year, up 25 per cent compared with a year earlier.