Midway through Premier Li Keqiang’s opening speech at China’s legislative meeting, delegate Gai Ruyin slipped out for a cigarette break.
Gai, the representative from a northeastern province and a two-pack-a-day man for four decades, is among the 300 million tobacco users China’s government hopes to curb as it weighs a national ban on smoking in public spaces.
In December, the government took an early step by ordering cadres to stop lighting up at official functions and in public premises such as government buildings and sporting venues. That directive didn’t stop Gai and other cadres from puffing on cigarettes outside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People as the annual congressional meeting took off on March 5.
Cheap and ubiquitous cigarettes are often exchanged as a social courtesy -- almost like a handshake -- in China, home to about a third of the world’s smokers. Surging health-care costs are forcing the government to weigh stricter legislative rules on smoking in public locations. The country’s health commission is drafting the proposed national ban, which also is being studied by other parts of the government.
“We smoke in small group meetings, when we surf the Internet and when we eat and drink, and we smoke the most when we chit-chat among friends,” said Gai, as he puffed on a cigarette outside the hall. “It’s a habit that we can’t easily change.”
The efforts to restrict tobacco use pits future economic gains from a healthier population against more than $95 billion in annual tax revenue from an industry in which the regulator, the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, also runs the China National Tobacco Corp., producer of 97 percent of China’s cigarettes.
Last year China raised its annual budget for medical and health care to 260.25 billion yuan ($42.5 billion), a 27 percent increase from the year earlier. The government said Feb. 8 it would expand a program to enable people with serious illnesses to get more compensation from medical insurance plans.
“We’re actively promoting the creation of a national law against smoking in public spaces,” Li Bin, minister in charge of China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, said at a press conference in Beijing held on March 6. “Smokers need to stop doing so in public spaces, for their own health and for those of others around them,” she said.
Drafting of the law began last year and various government arms are studying the proposals with the aim of having the State Council issuing the ban in indoor public spaces such as restaurants and hotel lobbies by this year, the commission’s spokesman Mao Qun’an said during a Jan. 7 briefing.
For the proposed national ban to work, there would need to be penalties such as fines for restaurants and other establishments that don’t stop patrons from lighting up, said Angela Pratt, officer in charge of the World Health Organization’s Tobacco Free Initiative in China.
“Penalites are absolutely, critically important because with no strong incentives for people to comply, that makes it very hard to enforce the law,” said Beijing-based Pratt in a telephone interview.
In Western nations, bans combined with higher taxes have driven down smoking rates and reduced diseases such as lung cancer and heart disease, said Judith Mackay, of the World Lung Foundation. The order covering government officials’ behavior is practical, she said.
“It removes the state imprimatur on acceptance of tobacco. If government officials can’t do it, it paves the way for a law that will affect the whole public,” MacKay, a senior adviser to the group, said in an interview in Hong Kong.
Even so, while the current directive is encouraging, it isn’t yet backed by legislation or legally enforceable, said T.H. Lam, a public health professor at the University of Hong Kong, in an interview.
The current ban hasn’t had a serious impact on China National Tobacco sales, said general manager Ling Chengxing, who’s also a delegate to the congress.
“Those who smoke still smoke,” said Ling, speaking to reporters at the Great Hall on March 5. “They just do it in a different place and at a different time.”
At the moment about 28 percent of China’s population, or 300 million people, regularly smoke, according to the World Health Organization. That’s almost as big a number as the total U.S. population.
In December, the main training institution of the Communist Party proposed legislative changes to tighten tobacco controls and curb the state cigarette monopoly’s regulatory powers, signaling increasing political will on the subject.
Still, while the government’s savings may be substantial over time, a complete ban stands to hurt the state-run China National Tobacco over the short term, a factor that may slow a final decision. China National, the world’s biggest tobacco company, generated about 117.7 billion yuan in 2010 on sales of 770.4 billion yuan, the company said in 2012 in a rare release of the company’s financial data.
“It’s not just a health issue, you have to consider all the tobacco leaf farmers and the tax revenue that comes from the industry,” said Gai, the delegate.
The delegate said that since the December directive he and his colleagues don’t smoke in public places. “This is outdoors, so it doesn’t count,” he said, as he lit up a second Nanjing brand cigarette by the pillars of the Great Hall.
Some of Gai’s lawmaker colleagues are already calling for future annual meetings to be made totally smoke-free, both indoors or outdoors, according to a March 3 Xinhua report posted on the Chinese Communist Party’s news website.
Gai, who joined the party in 1973 and rose through the ranks to become the party secretary of the legislature in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, says that may finally be the incentive for him to abstain -- if only for the weeks in the capital city.
“If it happens, then it happens,” Gai said. “We believe all of the central government’s policies are based on benefiting the people so if it becomes the rule, then the minority will obey the majority.”
— With assistance by Daryl Loo, and Natasha Khan