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Smoking ‘too easy’ in China, says WHO, and even smokers agree

Jessie Lau

Even smokers themselves agree – the mainland doesn’t go far enough in stamping out tobacco use in public places, especially at work, according to a World Health Organisation report.

The findings were a clear indication the government lagged behind society in dealing with the health threats posed by smoking, the organisation said.

A comprehensive ban on smoking was introduced in Beijing in June, but many mainland cities have yet to follow suit. A national draft law banning smoking in public places was released for public consultation by the State Council in November last year, but has yet to be adopted.

“We see no reason to delay,” said Angela Pratt, who leads the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative in Beijing. “The existing laws aren’t working partly because many have loopholes. They’re not well enforced. They don’t protect people from exposure.”

More than a million people die annually from tobacco-related illnesses on the mainland, and an additional 100,000 die from diseases arising from exposure to second-hand smoke.

About 70 per cent of Chinese smokers and ex-smokers said they had witnessed smoking in indoor workplaces in 2011 and 2012 – the highest percentage among the countries surveyed. About 82 and 89 per cent of respondents had observed smoking in restaurants and bars in the past six months, respectively.


About half wanted a complete ban on lighting up in indoor workplaces. “The level of support right now among smokers in China for smoke-free zones is higher than it was in any of the countries we’ve studied,” said Geoffrey Fong, founder and chief principal investigator at the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project – which examines the effects of the WHO’s anti-smoking efforts. “There should be no barrier to implementing smoke-free laws.”

Extending the ban to bars was also viewed more favourably on the mainland than in other countries before the adoption of a nationwide law. On average, 35 per cent of Chinese supported smoke-free bars. In Ireland, the first country to ban smoking in bars, only 12 per cent supported the law before it was introduced.

The survey was conducted in six mainland cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and the report was prepared in conjunction with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the international policy evaluation project.

Critics say policies – no matter how broadly aimed – will not be well enforced on the mainland, and that tobacco companies generate significant income for the government in the form of taxes. The industry accounts for about 10 per cent of the national fiscal revenue, and contributed 911 billion yuan (HK$1.11 trillion) last year, Beijing Business Today has reported.

The existing laws aren’t working partly because many have loopholes

Angela Pratt, WHO

Yet Pratt said stronger laws were easier to enforce, and the cost of tobacco use to public health far outweighed the tax dollars the industry contributed.

Wu Yiqun, deputy director of the ThinkTank Research Centre for Health Development, also supports the idea of a nationwide law and stressed the need to separate the business of tobacco companies from the government. “It’s getting better. The people living in Beijing … they support this regulation. Their behaviour is changing,” Wu said. “Compared to other countries, we’re very slow.”

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