Anti-smoking campaigner goes on national tour grabbing cigarettes from people’s mouths

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2016-3-4 5:03:01

Zhang Yue (left) grabs a lit cigarette from a smoker's mouth. Photo: CFP

Zhang Yue's name cards carry an eye-catching title: "Top anti-smoking fighter."

Despite the flamboyant term, the 56-year-old man from Henan Province usually dresses in a rather low-key manner, donning a jacket, jeans and sometimes a cap that hides half of his face. 

But what he does is far from low-key. When he goes on publicity tours to raise awareness of the harm of smoking, he starts by going to crowded areas, such as train stations, squares or farm markets. He begins by chatting with smokers and handing them pamphlets. When the smokers least expect it, Zhang will suddenly pull the cigarettes from their lips. He does this about a dozen times in half an hour.

Zhang has been doing this for the last 18 years in 386 cities. Many doubt his motives and even the real effectiveness of his actions, but Zhang says he'll keep on going regardless of the cost.

Deadly habit

Zhang said that when he was young, he was repelled by the smell of smoke, and not just from cigarettes. He remembers being so smothered by the smoke while his parents were cooking that his eyes would water.

He tried smoking cigarettes when he was 20. Back then he was an accountant in his hometown and his colleagues were in the habit of handing out cigarettes to each other. Once, the company called a meeting, and about 80 people were smoking in one room at the same time.

But when Zhang tried taking a puff, he was disgusted by the taste and started coughing.

The event that prompted Zhang to become an anti-smoking campaigner was the death of his sister, who died of a brain tumor in 1988 at the age of 26, despite having previously always been in excellent health.

His sister's death came as a terrible shock to Zhang, so he started researching possible causes. He then read that when parents smoke, their children are more prone to diseases. This led him to believe his sister's death was connected to their father's smoking habit.

In 1990, he started trying to get his younger brother to quit smoking. He didn't have any special methods to go about doing this, apart from repeatedly telling him how much damage smoking can cause, and what kind of diseases he might develop. After two months of nagging, his brother quit.

Zhang then targeted other members of his family. By 1997, he had convinced 12 people to quit.

Hectic touring

In 1999, the magazine Chinese Health Care, a publication under the Ministry of Health, published an article about Zhang's work in helping his family quit smoking. The magazine called Zhang the "top anti-smoking fighter," a title he has used for himself ever since.

In November 2001, Zhang began his national tour to promote quitting smoking, using  methods that seem excessively aggressive to some.

Needless to say, not all smokers are cooperative. Some avoid Zhang and walk away as soon as they see him. Some smile at him but continue smoking after his lectures, but Zhang doesn't mind them.

"About 90 percent of the people are cooperative. They may smoke again, but the more I keep on at them, the less they smoke," Zhang said.

In recent years, China has tightened up restrictions on smoking. In June 2015, Beijing issued its strictest ban yet, to outlaw all indoor smoking. The policy also encourages the general public to play a role in stopping smoking. One promotional video suggests some hand gestures that people can use to stop smokers.

But passersby interviewed by the Luzhou News in Sichuan Province said they don't usually dare try to stop smokers.

One woman told the newspaper that while taking a taxi, the driver smoked two cigarettes consecutively and the smell almost choked her. Even though she was angry, she was afraid to say anything, so she rolled down the window to get some fresh air. Most people won't choose to confront smokers like Zhang.

Questionable tactics

In the description on his Weibo account, Zhang wrote, "Smoking-ban campaigner Zhang Yue has the shine of Edison, Yugong and Lin Zexu."

In the traditional Chinese fable, Yugong persevered at digging away two mountains in front of his house because they blocked his way. When his neighbor mocked him for this seemingly futile endeavor, Yugong said as long as he and his offspring persist in digging, eventually they'll succeed.

Lin Zexu is a historical figure from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), well-known for his attempts to destroy tons of opium.

Zhang's actions are criticized by many. Some say smokers have rights also, and Zhang should just mind his own business. Jiangxi Television did a show a couple of years ago discussing the controversy of Zhang's actions.

But Zhang usually dismisses these kinds of opinions.

"They think I'm a disgrace? Well, my cause is supported by the whole nation, so the whole nation is supporting a disgrace?" he asked.

Zhang's "career" comes with a downside as well. Copying and printing his pamphlets as well as traveling cost a great deal of money. He hasn't had a paid job in over 10 years, has used up all his savings and is more than 200,000 yuan ($30,540) in debt.

His wife has brought up the issue of divorce several times. His two children, now in college, still don't support him. Wherever Zhang goes, he's quite alone. During the past Chinese New Year, he was on a publicity tour in Panzhihua, Sichuan Province, and didn't return home for the holidays. But whenever people ask him about this, he still puts on a brave face.

"China has 350 million smokers, that's almost the population of the US. Even though it's a distant goal, I'll sacrifice everything to get there," he said.

Newspaper headline: Butt out

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