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China smoking ban may have little effect

In a country of 300 million smokers, where many don't know of the health risks of tobacco, few expect much from a ban effective Sunday.

April 30, 2011|By Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times
  • A man smokes in front of a no-smoking notice at a bus station in Beijing in March. A new order effective Sunday bans smoking indoors and outdoors.
A man smokes in front of a no-smoking notice at a bus station in Beijing in… (Andy Wong, Associated Press )

Reporting from Beijing — On sunny days, Xu Dongguang, a manager of a trendy cafe in downtown Beijing, arranges tables outside for patrons to while away the afternoon, reading, drinking coffee and chain-smoking. But starting Sunday, all bars, restaurants, hospitals and other public places in China are slated to become smoke-free, inside and out.

A few days before the ban was set to go into effect, many places in Beijing had only heard of the restrictions from news reports, and no one had received an official notice. Xu didn't have plans to comply.

"Our whole restaurant is the smoking section," he said. "Maybe we'll try to ask people to go outside, but in the end, the customer is God."

Efforts to ban smoking in public places here have been plagued by false starts and failed campaigns. China, with the world's largest population, also has the most smokers — more than 300 million — a deeply entrenched smoking culture and little awareness among the general public about the health risks.

The current ban was mandated by the State Council, China's top administrative body, in response to a World Health Organization treaty Beijing signed in 2006 pledging to enact nationwide tobacco-control legislation within five years. China already has missed the deadline by almost five months.

The law mandates a penalty of 30,000 yuan, or about $4,600, for owners of establishments that do not comply, but it is still unclear who will enforce the ban and what actions will trigger such a steep fine.

Many Chinese businessmen greet each other with rounds of cigarette giving, and it's a rare business deal that concludes without one party giving the other expensive tobacco.

"When I applied for permits [for the bar], I would always give officials cigarettes as a present," said Lin Tao, a bar owner.

One posh brand of smokes readily available in fashionable Beijing malls is Panda Cigarettes, which cost 700 yuan, or about $107, a pack. Most brands, however, cost about $2 a pack.

In 2008, Zhou Jiugeng, the director of the Nanjing Property Bureau, was sacked after he was seen at a news conference with cigarettes that cost $20 a pack, much more than he could afford on his official salary.

China accounts for a third of all cigarettes smoked worldwide, and about 3,000 people die every day here from smoking-related illness, according the World Health Organization. Cigarette smoke contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in China, WHO says.

Public health experts doubt that the ban will be immediately effective, citing legal and education obstacles.

"I would be very surprised if it were enforced from May 1," said Sarah England, a technical officer at the World Health Organization. "The law will need to be interpreted by the local and municipal authorities before it has a real impact."

She also noted the lack of a nationwide public education campaign similar to those in the West, so "only 23% of adults believe smoking causes cancer or other health problems."

Since most Chinese haven't been told about the harmful effects of smoking, they don't see the need to stop. From 2006 to 2009, three antismoking units at Beijing hospitals officially closed, and others merged with hospital respiratory departments, according to the China Daily newspaper.

"There aren't many people who come in just to quit smoking," said Liu Shuang, director of the respiratory unit at Beijing's An Zhen Hospital. "Patients are usually at the hospital for a smoking-related illness, and only then come to us to quit smoking. But middle-aged and younger people still haven't felt the effects from smoking so they haven't even thought about quitting."

An added burden is the cost of quitting. The medication that helps with giving up tobacco typically costs more than 1,000 yuan, or about $150, about half a month's salary for the average worker.

A recent phenomenon of videos of children smoking posted on Chinese websites illustrates the lack of knowledge of tobacco's effects. One, titled "3-Year-Old Smoking Emperor," shows two boys on a train puffing away and occasionally blowing smoke at each other. Adults look on in amusement with one passenger asking, "Does he know how to smoke?" Another answers, "Yes, see, he can inhale!"

The ultimate hurdle to enforcing a smoking ban might be the government itself, which has a direct stake in the tobacco industry.

China National Tobacco Corp. is a state-owned cigarette monopoly and the world's largest tobacco company. In 2009, more than 7.5% of government revenue, or $77.3 billion, came from taxes and profits related to tobacco, according to the China Daily.

Lin, the bar owner from southern China, chain-smokes as a way to relax while patrons drink cheap beer and contribute to the cloud of smoke that hovers throughout his French-themed subterranean lounge-bar. He doubts the rule will be effective.

"The police won't enforce the policy," he said. "Chinese cops smoke more than anyone."

Haas is a news assistant in The Times' Beijing bureau.

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