China has long been one of the most smoker-friendly countries in the world, with few restrictions and virtually no taboos when it comes to lighting up. Go into most restaurants in China, and expect to be engulfed in a choking cloud of tobacco smoke. The bars, not surprisingly, are worse. Offering a cigarette to a new acquaintance is considered polite, while refusing it is often seen as rude. Sparking up next to children, pregnant mothers, or anyone else is pretty much considered normal. Now all that’s supposed to change.
Starting on June 1 in Beijing a blanket ban will be imposed on smoking in public places, after the city’s Municipal People’s Congress passed the tough new law in November. Affected will be all workplaces, schools, hotels, public transport, airports (which will no longer have designated smoking rooms or lounges), and Beijing’s many historic tourist spots, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The harshest antismoking rules ever to be imposed in China (18 other cities already have lighter bans) is seen as a trial run for a national law, already drafted but still some distance from passage.
Thousands of inspectors from the Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign Committee, part of the municipal Health and Family Planning Commission, have been trained as enforcers and can levy fines of as much as 200 yuan ($32) on smokers and 10,000 yuan ($1,613) on businesses refusing to comply with the ban. It’s the first time a law will target businesses that tolerate tobacco use, and authorities are also encouraging the public to report on scofflaws through a hotline (12320) and popular social media app WeChat. “Tipoffs can be conducted via phone or by uploading pictures,” Liu Zejun, director of the Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign Committee, told the official Xinhua News Agency. Already tough restrictions on tobacco advertising will be even further tightened under the laws, which will ban the ads outright from television, radio, print, public transport, and the outdoors.
But enforcing the ban is bound to be a challenge, with two earlier efforts to curb smoking in China’s capital—in the mid 1990s and in 2008, right before the Beijing Olympics—having had little impact. Beijing has 4.2 million smokers (the vast majority male), about a quarter of the adult population, who in total consume an average of 14.6 million cigarettes a day, according to a survey carried out last year by the patriotic health committee. About 90 percent of those who went to bars and nightclubs, almost two-thirds of those in restaurants, and 40 percent of people at home were likely to inhale secondhand smoke, the study showed.
“China’s problem with tobacco is very serious,” says Bernhard Schwartlander, the World Health Organization’s representative in China. The country has 300 million smokers, nearly a third of the world’s total. Almost 53 percent of men and 2.4 percent of woman regularly smoke, according to WHO’s Global Adult Tobacco Survey from 2010. That’s led to a million deaths a year from soaring rates of heart disease, cancer, and lung and respiratory diseases. About 100,000 deaths a year are due to secondhand smoke. “That number is going to dramatically increase, almost like a tsunami rolling over us—up to 3 million deaths a year—unless China takes massive action,” Schwartlander says.
Despite earlier failures, the ban this time is likely to have a real impact, he says. One key reason is the apparent top-level support for curbing smoking: President Xi Jinping has recently banned party officials from lighting up in public and giving cigarettes as gifts. (First lady Peng Liyuan, too, has long been a particularly vocal antismoking advocate in China.) On May 8 the country’s Ministry of Finance announced plans to more than double the consumption tax on cigarettes, from 5 percent to 11 percent. “These actions have set the stage for this new law. We can see the overall environment has changed,” Schwartlander says.