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China moves to snuff out smoking before Games

The anti-tobacco laws in Beijing are part of an Olympic cleanup and a bid to curb the widespread habit.

May 02, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Li Zhigang inhaled deeply from a cigarette while sitting on his haunches near the Beijing Railway Station before deciding there was no way that tighter smoking regulations would change where or when he'd grab a smoke.

Li, 30, a real estate salesman, said he began smoking several years ago because he saw virtually all the people around him lighting up. He said he could support tighter rules, at least in theory, but could not see himself changing his smoking habits.

"I'm not that addicted, but it's also not so easy to stop," Li said. "The only answer would be if they stopped making cigarettes completely."

As part of a bid to create a "smoke-free Olympics," new regulations effective Thursday in Beijing require separate smoking and nonsmoking areas in bars, restaurants, hotels, parks, Internet cafes and airport lounges. There's an outright ban in places such as offices, hospitals, sports stadiums, museums and universities.

The results will probably be most obvious at Olympic sites as the Chinese government, with the Beijing Games beginning Aug. 8, goes into overdrive to curb littering, spitting, walking around without a shirt and cutting in line, a bid to project a favorable image to the world.

The tighter rules, which apply only to Beijing and a few other cities, replace less stringent, rarely enforced, measures in place since 1995. The government is counting on newfound cooperation from smokers as well as enforcement by way of 100,000 voluntary monitors and fines of up to $700 for companies that don't comply.

In 2009, cigarette packs are supposed to have health warnings cover at least one-third of their surface.

With about 350 million smokers, China is the world's largest producer and consumer of cigarettes and has a deeply entrenched smoking culture.

Outside the Yuyang Hotel in central Beijing, dozens of migrant workers offered one another cigarettes on their lunch break from their construction jobs Thursday as, nearby, waiting taxi drivers gossiped in a cloud of smoke near a businessman who stopped at the crosswalk to light up between conversations on his cellphone.

At the Dongzhimen Bus Station, Zhang Qinglin sat in his car smoking. He smokes 10 relatively expensive "Zhonghua" cigarettes a day as a way to break up the monotony of long drives or to enjoy a moment with friends. His wife and his 18-year old son don't like second-hand smoke, so he avoids bothering them at home.

"Even if they make it tougher, I don't think I'll stop," he said a few yards from the Beijing Tobacco Monopoly Co. headquarters. "If you really want to smoke, you'll smoke."

Whether Beijing can curtail all the huffing and puffing remains to be seen, but activists note that anti-smoking campaigns in New York and Paris were also met with skepticism initially, but have been a success.

Chinese officials hope the efforts in Beijing will inspire the country to meet nationwide commitments aimed at curtailing tobacco use under a U.N. convention it ratified in 2005. They include pledges to ban tobacco advertising, post prominent health warnings on cigarette packs, step up education and support smoking cessation programs nationwide by 2011.

Critics of the new regulations say that China has a long history of campaigns that peter out. A recent China Youth Daily poll found only 22% of respondents thought a smoking ban would be effective.

A security ban on cigarette lighters when passing through metal detectors at stadiums should help efforts to curb smokers, said Susan Lawrence, head of China programs at the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a civic group.

And text messages delivered to cellphones and warnings splashed across giant screens at venues will reinforce the campaign, said Sarah England of the World Health Organization in Beijing. Early test runs at the "Water Cube" swimming venue and "Bird's Nest" National Stadium found no-smoking signs prominently posted and staff trained to warn anyone caught smoking to snuff it out, she said.

But changing the culture in a country with a third of the world's smokers, including some boys who start as young as 10, won't be easy.

"It's difficult to have a smoke-free Olympics," said Li Xiguang, journalism school dean of Beijing's Qinghua University, who runs an anti-tobacco media awareness program. "It's so deeply rooted in ordinary life and business."

Indeed, in China it's customary to offer a cigarette as a sign of hospitality, and many business deals are hammered out over long, boozy dinners in a tobacco haze. Smokers range from those wealthy enough to afford $35 packs to the rural poor who turn to state tobacco monopolies capable of producing cigarettes starting at 20 cents a pack.

"Those who don't smoke and drink aren't real men," according to a popular expression.

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