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No butts about it: the noose tightens on smoking

CHINA, with almost as many smokers as the US has people, is stepping up its campaign to curtail tobacco use. Starting in March, Shanghai is introducing a ban on smoking in all indoor public venues, workplaces and public transport.

The restriction will cover hotels, restaurants, offices, airports, railway stations and entertainment venues. The ban was approved by the Shanghai People’s Congress Standing Committee on November 11, after months of intense debate and deliberation.

“We are delighted with the adoption of this new law,” said Dr Bernhard Schwartländer, World Health Organization representative in China. “Shanghai will be protecting non-smokers from the deadly harm of second-hand smoke.”

Under the new regulation, hotels cannot even offer rooms designated for smoking, and restaurants and entertainment venues will not be allowed to set aside smoking areas. Smoking will also be banned in government offices, public meeting rooms and canteens. Airports, railway stations, ferry ports and bus stations will have to close their smoking-designated rooms, said Ding Wei, a deputy director delegate with the Legislative Affairs Commission of the Shanghai Congress.

Indoor smoking rooms have already been closed at Shanghai’s two airports and railway stations.

The new regulation also extends the smoking ban to outdoor areas frequented by children, such as training institutes, historic sites and stadiums.

Persons violating the regulation will be subject to fines of up to 200 yuan (US$29), and companies that breach the rule are liable for fines of up to 30,000 yuan.

Stamping out cigarette smoking in China has always been a difficult task. Smoking traditionally has been considered sociable and a symbol of friendship among men. It’s not uncommon for hosts to put packs of cigarettes on a table, alongside liquor and sweets, for guests.

Compared with many Western countries, cigarettes in China are relatively cheap and widely available. Then, too, governments reap a lot of revenue from taxes on tobacco.

The Chinese Association on Tobacco Control estimates there are about 316 million smokers in this country, and about 1.5 million Chinese die every year from tobacco-related diseases.

The new crackdown on smoking has been widely lauded.

“This is a major milestone in the decades-long efforts to control smoking in public areas in Shanghai,” said Ding, who has at the forefront of anti-smoking legislation since 1994.

In that year, Shanghai was the first city in China to adopt some restrictions on smoking in public areas. Ahead of the 2010 World Expo, the restrictions were extended to ban smoking in and around primary schools, kindergartens and hospitals. Restaurants with 75 seats or more and businesses of more than 150 square meters were permitted to designate smoking and non-smoking sections.

In the past five years under the existing regulations, local authorities have collected about 1.8 million yuan in fines from 971 companies and 482 individuals.

Ding said the current regulation doesn’t completely address rising anti-smoking public sentiment. Two surveys earlier this year, by the city’s health commission and legislative body, found more than 90 percent of people support a complete ban on all smoking indoors.

Moreover, a study released by Fudan University earlier this year showed that smoking-designated rooms in airports, railway stations, hotels and other public areas don’t adequately protect non-smokers from passive exposure to smoke.

Fine particle pollution, as measured by PM2.5, was as high as 900 micrograms per cubic meter near the entrances of such rooms, said Professor Zheng Pinpin, head of the Smoking Control Research Center at Fudan. The national safety standard is 75 micrograms, and the World Health Organization considers anything higher than 25 to be unsafe for human health.

The new ban does acknowledge the existence of people who don’t want to quit the habit. It allows outdoor smoking areas to be set up near public venues, workplaces and transport hubs. However, those areas must be away from public passageways and erect signs warning that smoking is harmful to health. The areas will also need approval from the city’s fire prevention authority.

“Apart from the stricter regulations, we also have to take into account the feasibility of the rules,” Ding admitted.

Indoor smoking rooms will be allowed under “special circumstances” and with prior approval. They may include factories where outdoor smoking is hazardous or restricted places where there are security concerns.

“We hope that this clause in the law is never invoked,” said Schwartländer, adding that emphasis should be on ensuring that the new law is strictly enforced without any exceptions.

Law enforcement officers can fine individuals and companies on the spot if anyone is caught smoking in a no-smoking area. The new rule also encourages the public to send in photos of offending behavior to the 12345 hotline. Of course, cleaning up Shanghai’s often foul air is not only a matter of curbing smoking. Efforts are underway to promote the use of clean-burning vehicles, and fireworks restriction within the Outer Ring Road.

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