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Nicotine Nation

SCMP David Eimer
Feb 20, 2008

A pall of smoke has been hanging over mainland cities for the past two weeks and, for once, it’s not pollution. Instead, it’s the acrid residue of the millions of fireworks and cigarettes that go up in smoke every Lunar New Year. The tobacco industry gets a massive boost during the holiday season, with cigarettes a favoured gift, and fireworks remain enormously popular despite the many deaths they cause.

In fact, it’s a surprise that more people don’t die from stray rockets. In Foshan last week, 15,000 cartons of fireworks exploded in a blast equal to a 1.1 magnitude earthquake that was felt as far away as Guangzhou. Typically, the explosion was caused by carelessly discarded cigarettes. But fireworks deaths are nothing compared with the 1 million people who die of smoking-related diseases each year. With 350 million smokers on the mainland, that death rate is expected to rise to more than 2 million by 2020.

All of which is at odds with the ethos of the Beijing Olympics. The arrival of the Games in China was supposed to herald a new age in public health, according to Vice-Minister of Health Gao Qiang . At the end of last year, he vowed to use the Olympics to improve public health. Last week, the World Health Organisation called for a concerted anti-smoking campaign.

So far, all authorities have done is ban smoking in the Olympic Village, as well as at the competition venues and the hotels where people involved with the Games will stay. But banning smoking in the Olympic Village is like banning razors in Afghanistan; it is unnecessary. Instead, it’s on the streets of Beijing and other cities that the government needs to concentrate its efforts.

It is true that Beijing’s taxi drivers face fines of 200 yuan if they are caught smoking in their cabs, but, like the much-vaunted 50-yuan fine for spitting, in practice no one gets penalised. Nor has the idea of making restaurants in the capital non-smoking been greeted with enthusiasm. At Beijing’s first smoke-free eaterie, customers have taken to locking the waitresses out of the VIP rooms while they have a quick puff.

Such is the lack of awareness about using the Olympics to spread the non-smoking message that a recent survey showed almost 8 per cent of respondents still think smoking isn’t harmful. It also showed that half of all smokers couldn’t contemplate giving up as they were afraid of offending people who offered them a cigarette at times like the Lunar New Year.

Some would say this ignorance suits the government. After all, the mainland is responsible for one-third of the world’s tobacco production, all government controlled and worth 500 billion yuan a year. But putting revenue ahead of the public’s health is cynical in the extreme. With the Olympics less than six months away, it’s time the authorities put the same effort into combating smoking that they have into building a Beijing fit for the Games.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist

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