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Beijing’s revised smoking bill sets a poor example

29 September, 2014

SCMP Editorial

It is bad enough when people become addicted to smoking. It is worse when the state becomes hooked on their habit. While a smoker can find it hard to quit for good, the state can also find it difficult to adjust. The craving in the latter case is for the revenue from commercial-industrial taxes on the tobacco industry, not to mention the enormous profits generated by a state tobacco monopoly on the mainland and the potential for official corruption.

We trust these are not factors behind the decision by the Beijing municipal government to water down a law on public smoking indoors that was hailed by tobacco control advocates as significant progress. The official explanation for it was to remove ambiguity. But the World Health Organisation is not convinced. “It would be a great shame – and a tremendous waste of life – if Beijing’s leaders let special interests derail progress towards passage of a law [for a] comprehensive ban on indoor public smoking,” said Dr Bernard Schwartlander, WHO representative in China.

The proposed law, when unveiled in April, beefed up restrictions on smoking to include all indoor public spaces including public transport. When the bill was presented for a second reading in July, the ban was amended to “shared indoor areas of offices”. This would exempt offices with a single occupant, most likely an official or boss. It conjures up an image of someone sitting in an office wreathed in smoke while staff who enter or work nearby are exposed to second-hand smoke. It also reinforces the perception of one law for the elite and another for everyone else.

This is disappointing in light of plans for a nationwide smoking ban in public places. It makes a continuing mockery of China’s commitments under the WHO framework convention on tobacco control. Smoking is responsible for more than one million deaths on the mainland every year. The cost in lost revenue and profit of reducing it has to be weighed against the economic costs of not doing so. This is one issue on which the nation’s capital should set a good example, not a poor one.

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