Quitting smoking starts with personal responsibility

By Rick Masters Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/8 18:33:40

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

On March 1, public smoking was officially declared off limits for all indoor venues and office buildings in Shanghai. There are many good reasons to control tobacco consumption, as smoking is directly responsible for literally millions of annual cancer and coronary-related deaths. Secondhand smoke has also proven to be hazardous to the health of those nearby. The old joke about China's pollution killing the population faster than cigarette smoke is just a joke. Tobacco is still China's deadliest product.

Cigarettes are also costly in terms of healthcare for society as a whole. The latest report by the World Health Organization on tobacco control was bluntly named "The Bill China Cannot Afford," estimating that in 2014 alone, the cost of tobacco use for China was 350 billion yuan ($50.73 billion), a mind-baffling tenfold increase since the year 2000.

Shanghai's previous anti-smoking legislation, took effect in 2010, was only a lukewarm success, as authorities quickly learned that actually enforcing the rules was infinitely more difficult than writing them. The resilience of Shanghai's collective smoking habit proved to be a worthy challenge. Without proper public education, the smoking public just dismissed the rules with a wave of their nicotine-stained fingers and carried on as usual.

Nor did the 50 yuan to 200 yuan fine do much to deter smokers. The odds of actually getting fined are close to nil, and even if one were fined, anything under 200 yuan is just drop in the bucket here in one of Asia's wealthiest cities. As such, even during the first month of the new regulations, when pressure to act on the new law was still strong, the number of individuals fined was only 115. Out of millions!

Moreover, based on the record-breaking annual revenue of the tobacco industry, and considering the very-well-established social smoking culture in China, it is not easy to be optimistic about the future of such smoking regulations.

In my point of view as an admitted habitual smoker, while the new regulations are a crucial step on the road to a healthy civilization, the efforts are still quite far behind what is considered to be most essential in tobacco control: education and awareness.

A 2009 International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project survey in China revealed that only 38 percent of smokers knew that smoking causes coronary heart disease, while only 27 percent knew that it can cause a stroke. Only 68 percent believed that smoking causes lung cancer.

As part of this awareness gap, China's standards still do not require cigarette packaging to include graphic health warnings. Proven by case studies in Brazil, Canada, Singapore and Thailand, pictures of rotted lungs and putrefying hearts can significantly scare off any youngsters who are thinking about taking up smoking.

However, Chinese cigarette packaging only offers the most simple of statements: "Our company humbly reminds you that smoking is bad for your health. Please do not smoke in smoke-free areas."

The national 12320 hot line is also far from being an optimal solution for raising awareness or counseling. For example, when you dial the number, you will hear a prompt for hot line sub-sections, including ones for sexually transmitted diseases, before reaching the "healthy lifestyle" sub-section.

At this point you would probably ask yourself, is my problem that important to be listed after AIDS, HIV and hepatitis? If you don't, you are asked to register your name and telephone number, and your conversation will also be recorded. We can only presume how many millions of people have hung up before reaching an operator.

Even if we are better off in a world free of tobacco, we cannot completely limit a person's freedom of choice on whether to smoke or not. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to provide options that are acceptable in terms of secondhand smoking, such as building more smoking rooms.

In my opinion, a self-conscious decision to quit smoking, not coercion, is the only sustainable way of dealing with China's worsening smoking epidemic. Dissemination of knowledge, a public smoking ban, prohibiting minors from purchasing tobacco: these are the core actions the government should deliver. All the other decisions are for us alone to act upon.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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