No smoke without fire

By Liang Chen Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-26 18:39:00

A man smokes on a square where an activity promoting non-smoking in public sites is being held in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Photo: CFP
A man smokes on a square where an activity promoting non-smoking in public sites is being held in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Photo: CFP

In a trendy Internet café in downtown Beijing, the smell of cigarettes fills the air and coughs are heard every so often.

In the corner, a young man in a black jacket lights a cigarette. A non-smoking sign hangs on the wall overhead but he pays it no heed.

"I gave up trying to dissuade customers from smoking. They would light up soon after I stopped them. Because we have no right to impose a fine on them, they wouldn't listen to us," a network administrator, who sat behind the counter and cut his nails, told the Global Times.

China mandated a regulation since May 1, 2011, banning smoking in a list of public areas, including all restaurants, bars, subways and museums, in response to a World Health Organization (WHO) pact China signed in 2006 vowing to create nationwide tobacco-control legislation within five years.

One year has gone by, but efforts to implement a smoke-free environment in public places have been plagued by an entrenched "cigarette culture" and poor law enforcement, experts said.

China has the biggest number of smokers - more than 300 million - in the world, and they consume one-third of the world's cigarettes. 

Most smokers and much of the general public have little awareness about the health risks although tobacco has become the biggest killer in China. Over 3,000 people die every day from smoking-related illnesses in China, according to the WHO.

"The success or failure in China depends largely on the government's attitude toward tobacco control. Implementing a specialized law that bans smoking and intensifying enforcement are the strongest measures of support available," Yang Gonghuan, a tobacco control expert with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), told the Global Times, adding that the landscape of tobacco control is not good.

Despite local laws and regulations, China still lacks a nationwide law enforcing smoking ban in public areas.

On December 21, China published a three-year plan on tobacco control, with plans to carry out a public smoking ban through nationwide legislation, as well as to adopt more price and tax measures to reduce the demand for tobacco.

The plan, jointly issued by eight government departments and led by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), also aims to ban tobacco companies from advertising or providing sponsorship in the name of public welfare. Tobacco companies are also asked to enhance health warnings on cigarette packs, according to the plan.

Poor law enforcement

In a country where most people smoke wherever they like, telling others not to smoke may be risky. Late last month, a Shanghai tourist named Zhang was beaten by three smokers in a Beijing café after she tried to stop them from smoking and took pictures as evidence.

Zhang posted the shots on Sina Weibo and her post was forwarded thousands of times. It led to an outcry concerning the smoking ban having had limited impact and calling for harsh penalties to be imposed on smokers who defy it.

The city's body in charge of tobacco control, the Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign Committee, remained silent and made no comment on the case when contacted by the Global Times.

Tobacco control experts and the public have long accused the local authority of its ambiguous attitudes toward its task. "Shouldn't the Beijing authority stand up and show the public how it deals with such cases?" Yang asked furiously.

A similar case took place in Hangzhou in 2010. A local citizen was beaten by a smoker who lit a cigarette in an elevator. The local government intervened shortly after the exposure. The smoker was arrested and fined 50 yuan ($8) for flouting the smoking ban. The man who was injured for dissuading the smoker was awarded 5,000 yuan.

Enforcement is everything, Yang said, noting that the government should use incentives and penalties to show their stance, so that people will feel emboldened to discourage cigarette smokers.

According to regulations, people who flout the ban will be fined between and 50 and 200 yuan and venues and organizations that violate it will face a penalty of 30,000 yuan. However, the regulation, which came into effect in May last year, did not even specify what the national law enforcement body was and how the penalties should be levied.

Generally speaking, patriotic health campaign committees at all levels are responsible for enforcing the law. However, in some cities, like Harbin and Tianjin, the city government has taken over their duties.

"Overlapping administrative bodies can result in ambiguous responsibilities, which causes accountability to become relatively difficult," Yang said.

In a 2010 report released by the China CDC, the country is doing poorly with implementation, with a performance score of only 37 of 100 possible points.

The report also revealed, that as China's tobacco industry contributes greatly to its national revenue, the Chinese government has not acted forthrightly in pushing forth the tobacco control all across the country.

In China, the MIIT is responsible for both tobacco control and expanding the tobacco industry.

Yang blamed the government for lacking incentives to control tobacco. "Smoking rates have remained unchanged in recent years, which shows the government has done little," she said.

The most effective ways of controlling smoking, including raising taxes and prices on tobacco as well as banning tobacco advertisements, have not been applied, she noted.

Non-smoking venues impossible

Cigarettes are commonly given as gifts in China, and officials and businessmen greet each other with entire cartons.

"I always choose renowned brands as gifts for my bosses and friends when I come back from a business trip," Yang Zhen, an IT engineer at a Beijing company, told the Global Times.

In a country where a pack of standard cigarettes costs just 5 yuan, it is common to see people lighting up in restaurants, bars, schools and even hospitals.

"People are so ingrained with the habit of smoking. It has long been regarded as a very important part of social and business networking," said Liang Liwen, a sociologist from Guangdong Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.

Unlike in Europe and the US, the notion that it is forbidden to smoke in public areas is not well-known, and some people give the cold shoulder to smokers, Liang said, adding that central and local authorities should alert the public to the dangers of smoking cigarettes.

Another report released by the China CDC last year revealed that around 1.2 million people die in China from smoking-related illnesses each year, a number it predicts will increase to 3.5 million by 2030.

"We removed all the ashtrays and remind guests that we are a non-smoking restaurant before they dine. But some guests, especially when they get drunk, will smoke regardless of our warning," said Li Qiuhua, a waiter at a Jin Ding Xuan chain restaurant in Beijing.

Even though some restaurants have taken several specific measures, including putting up non-smoking signs and training waiters and waitresses on how to politely dissuade smokers, the managers complain that they have failed to make their establishments smoke-free. 

According to a survey released by the Green Beagle Environment Institute, a NGO dedicated to environmental protection, a majority of Beijing restaurants have failed to create a non-smoking dining environment for their guests.

Over 80 percent of 377 Beijing restaurants interviewed admitted they have tried to use loopholes to avoid the ban, including placing dividers between smoking and non-smoking areas, reports said.

Dividing smoking and non-smoking areas do very little to prevent smoky air from wafting over to non-smoking areas, a challenge that local authorities have to deal with, Wang Qiuxia, member of the Green Beagle, who took charge of the survey, commented.

"Many of the restaurants complained they were unwilling to ban smoking or dissuade their guests from smoking, because they were afraid they might lose business," Wang said.

According to the regulation issued in Beijing, public places are asked to put up non-smoking signs. However, the Global Times found that half of 10 restaurants in the city posted no sign.

Some waitresses in Meigui Huayuan (Rose Garden), a barbecue buffet restaurant, told the Global Times they had no idea Beijing bans smoking in public places, and suggested diners change seats if guests at the next table smoked.

Another survey carried by the Green Beagle in September showed that second-hand smoke has become the greatest source of indoor air pollution in Beijing. Health experts estimate about 740 million people in China are exposed to second-hand smoke.

Sample cities

However, on certain fronts, both the central and local governments have accelerated the war against smokers.

In Beijing, tobacco control administrator the Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign Committee last year recruited 1,200 volunteers to ensure broader supervision and dissuade people from smoking in public areas, Beijing News reported.

In many cities, including Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province and Tianjin, the local administrations organize training for service personnel in public venues and teach them dissuasion skills. 

Realizing the importance of intensifying the law enforcement, Yang Gonghuan and her colleagues have helped some local authorities, including Harbin, capital city of Heilongjiang Province, improve their legislation and law enforcement in the last few years. "We want to create some example cities, so that we can further pressure the central government to do more," Yang said.

She noted that to truly intensify the law enforcement, the most important is to make a specific law with detailed clauses explaining how people should deal with smokers when the ban was defied.

It took Harbin a long time to pass the regulation on tobacco control, which took effect on May 30 last year and was known as the most stringent of its kind.

Harbin has also banned smoking in workplaces, which was not banned in other cities. Specific and harsh terms are included. According to the regulation, passengers can refuse to pay if a taxi driver smokes in the car, while taxi drivers can ask passengers to get out if they are smoking. 

"Considering the freezing weather in Harbin, enforcing the law is really tough," Shan Guojun, director of the city's legislative office, told the Global Times. Harbin's average temperature in the winter is -10 C.

Shan spent months persuading local officials to pass the law. Some opponents even marched into his office and complained to his face. "My colleagues, especially the cigarette smokers, were against it, and they complained that such a law would deprive them of their right to smoke," Shan said.

In response, Shan and his colleagues intensified their law enforcement. They have conducted surprise inspections and organized training for managers of public venues. "We rely a lot on managers and operators of the establishments concerned to implement the law," he said.

However, Harbin has not yet released one single case of smokers being punished, which has sparked further accusations of poor implementation.

Shan admitted the city's smoking ban still has a long way to go before reaching its desired effect.

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