Now Starring in China's Anti-Smoking Ads: Bill Gates

Photograph by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The fight against smoking in China has a new champion. Wearing a T-shirt with the words “Say No to Forced Smoking,” Bill Gates appears in a new anti-smoking video starring Feng Zhe, an Olympian gymnast.

While Microsoft may be having problems with the Chinese government, the company’s former boss is raising his public profile in the country. The video is part of a campaign, launched last month and backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to rally social-media users against secondhand smoke. Yang Jianyue, the Gates Foundation’s deputy director in China, told the China Daily that Bill Gates drafted the slogan “Say No to Forced Smoking,” a reference to secondhand smoke.

Taking on the tobacco industry and its powerful political allies is hard enough in the U.S. In China, the fight is even tougher, since Big Tobacco is actually part of the government itself. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were both chain smokers, and today the nation has about 300 million tobacco users—almost all of whom rely on a state-owned company for their nicotine fix. The China Tobacco monopoly in 2012 had earnings of 1.65 trillion yuan ($268 billion), according to a report in the Global Times.

But with China home to one-third of the world’s lung cancer patients, the government is taking a harder line against smoking. According a proposed law posted on the State Council’s website this week, the government is considering fines for those who defy a ban on indoor smoking, with penalties up to 500 yuan for the smokers themselves and additional penalties for the venue operators. The draft would also mandate designated areas for smokers and ban smoking completely in such places as women and children’s hospitals.

The new law may finally put some teeth into a public-smoking ban that officially went into effect three years ago. Not many people have paid attention to that ban, from the National Health and Family Planning Commission. Citywide restrictions in Shanghai haven’t been very effective, either. While the government there instituted a ban four years ago, the report in Global Times noted how easy it is to “find smokers in restaurants, hotels, schools and hospitals, where ashtrays sometimes sit near some ‘No Smoking’ signs.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.