While Beijing residents accustomed to smoky restaurants, bars, and other hazy interiors doubted that the city’s latest ban on lighting up would have any effect, it’s actually been a slow but steady success: Most F&B venues report good compliance with the rules, and state media recently reported that 200,000 fewer Beijingers are lighting up these days.
Based on findings jointly released at the end of 2016 by the Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign Committee and the Beijing Municipal Health Commission, the percentage of local adult smokers has gone down from 23.4 percent in 2014 to 22.3 percent this year.
Stricter smoking restrictions were announced in 2014, and put into effect citywide in 2015, barring anyone from puffing at eateries, workplaces, public transport and other public places. However, skeptics assumed that those rules would be less than successful, seeing as a 2011 ban did little to rid the capital tobacco haze (though, according to the BBC, those rules were more vague).
Such doubts were quickly dispelled in the summer of 2015, however, when the rules began to be earnestly enforced. State media says more than 127,000 restaurants, bars and other businesses were inspected since June of last year, leading to 5,300 people being forced to at least stub out their cigarettes, while of those 2,719 people in violation of puffing had to pay fines, which totaled RMB 142,500 (USD 20,700) between June 1 and November 30 last year.
Longtime F&B blogger and renowned man-about-town Jim Boyce vividly recalls just how different a night out in Beijing was before the ban. “Eating, drinking, and smoking were the trinity of activities for people going out back then,” he recalls. “I remember a night at places like First Floor, The Den, or Fubar would leave your clothes reeking of smoke — but that was also true of many bars and restaurants.”
Many Beijigers would argue that the capital’s livehouses were the smokiest of all local joints. I can recall the popular Wudaoying livehouse School Bar being so ashy on New Years Eve 2012, when indie troop Hedgehog drew such large throngs of cigarette-puffing fans that one member of my party opted to leave mid set, complaining her eyes were stinging so bad she could hardly see the band.
School Bar owner Felix Liu says such smoke-adverse patrons breathe easier at the livehouse now. “Most people follow the rule and smoke outside and in our yard, because no one actually wants to stay in a hazy room. But we still have some guests that smoke indoors, and we have to get our staff to stop them.”
Other venue owners say the new clear-air era of Beijing’s public spaces went easier than expected. Pink, manager at Temple Bar, says the stricter smoking ban has been successful. “Most customers are happier about the air quality inside our bar now, and smokers are understanding about the rule and go outside to smoke.”
Tristan Macquet, co-owner at Cafe de la Poste, attributes such compliance to the ban’s financial consequences, saying past capaigns “used to be words without actions, but this time [the authorities] really went all out. Fines for smokers and the restaurants were an incentive. Asking for people to report smokers has its pros and cons but it proved effective. We saw it at the time even in Chinese restaurants on Guijie: smokers were asked to go out to have their cigarette.”
Macquet says Beijing’s bar scene has boded well after the ban, adding: “for Café de la Poste, I definitely believe it was the right thing to do. Of course smokers groaned a little at first, but not for long. And the whole atmosphere of the restaurant got better afterwards. Soon it was as if it had always been like this. I think that air quality is such an issue now, especially in term of awareness, that customers really prefer it this way.”
One of the proprietors at Bungalow Tiki Bar says venue owners had just as much, if not more, to gain from the ban. “You reduce table surfaces getting burned, ash on the floor, and, when you have a small place like ours, you avoid the smell. Our bar would be a smoke pit if we’d been open before the smoking ban. It’s changed the whole Beijing nightlife scene. I know a few bars where you can still smoke inside, and now when I go in it’s quite horrible.”
And while the general acceptance, along with assertive enforcement, both seem promising for those opposed to tobacco, not all of the findings in the Patriotic Health Campaign Committee and Municipal Health Commission study were positive. CCTV, for instance, notes that a mere 30 percent of the capital’s adults said they understood the ill effects caused by lighting up. But at least 16.8 percent of them put in the effort to give up the cigs in 2016, a 1.9 percent uptick compared to 2014. We would have been equally interested, however, to learn just how those strong willed Beijingers gave up smoking. Vapes? Tobacco patches? Nicorette gum? Or did they go cold turkey?
Hopefully the next report will clear the air in that regard.