China’s Smoking Ban Sets Restaurants Against Defiant Customers

China's Smoking Ban Pits Restaurant Owners vs. Customers

A public smoking ban took effect in China’s capital today, with restaurant owners wincing at the notion of paying a hefty fine for patrons who insist on lighting up.

The law uses the threat of fines as high as 10,000 yuan ($1,600) in a bid to succeed where past smoking limits failed and enlist owners of bars and restaurants as enforcers. On day one, several claimed they shouldn’t be held responsible.

“The owners should not be faulted,” said Zhang Hongfei, who runs a steamed-dumpling shop in downtown Beijing. “When you get so busy, it’s impossible to keep an eye on every customer.”

The higher fines may separate the new law from the city’s two previous attempts at a public smoking ban in 1995 and 2008. Under the rules that took effect today, smoking is banned in all indoor public spaces as well as outdoor areas at schools and hospitals.

With its 300 million tobacco users, China faces a daunting task in cutting smoking rates. Surging health-care costs have pushed the government to take steps that have also included a doubled tax rate for cigarettes.

Beijing officials hope restaurant managers will complement the 1,100 strong inspectors keeping an eye on the city’s 4.2 million smokers, said Yu Xiuyan, a researcher at China University of Political Science and Law’s health law research center. Wang Wenyue, a 46-year-old businessman, said he likes the law even though he smokes two packs a day.

“It’s a decades-old habit for me,” Wang said as he took a drag on a cigarette. “But it’s a good policy, so I’ll just eat out less.”

Tax Revenue

The government receives billions of yuan in annual tax revenue from the industry, and the regulator, the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, also runs the China National Tobacco Corp., producer of 97 percent of China’s cigarettes.

Beyond the city boundaries, the enforcement of Beijing’s smoking ban can offer important lessons to a nationwide one that the central government is considering, according to the World Health Organization.

“You can’t control what the customers do,” said Fu Shunshui, 39-year-old owner of the Shaxian Delicacies restaurant in Beijing. As he spoke, a customer emerged from his restaurant with a lit cigarette.

Asked if the man had been smoking inside, Fu responded, “I wasn’t paying attention.”

— With assistance by Hui Li

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