Friday, March 25, 2011

China bans smoking in public places

A ban on smoking  in public places has been implemented in many countries for several years. Britain placed restrictions on restaurants and bars in 2006 and the bans swept across much of Europe soon after. In the US legislation even outlaws smoking outdoors in certain areas. But some countries have been slow to adopt anti-smoking policies. However even in countries where smoking is popular, governments are forcing through new regulations.

China is the latest to pass new laws which will ban smokers from restaurants, bars and other public places. The move has been applauded by health campaigners, but in a country where more than a quarter of the population smoke, such legislation may prove to be extremely unpopular.

Some 40 years ago airlines distributed cigarettes free of charge during flights. Cigarettes were offered free to hotel guests and at meetings and conferences, filter-tipped cigarettes were a standard feature alongside writing pads, pencils and ashtrays. Even non-smoking cars were unheard of on trains.

But there has been a gradual tightening of restrictions, even if only voluntary. No smoking signs adorn the walls of subway stations, airports and on buses and trains. Air China banned smoking several years ago and even lighters and matches are banned, though that is perhaps more to do with a perceived security threat.

During the Olympics the government attempted to encourage restaurants and bars to adopt a no smoking policy with its Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign. However, despite signs in many establishments most patrons simply ignored the request to refrain from smoking. In fact it is not uncommon to find an ashtray sitting adjacent to a no smoking sign at a restaurant table.

More than 300 million people in China are regular smokers, most of them men, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey conducted in 2009-2010. Increasingly, large numbers of women and teenagers have also taken up the habit. The survey, jointly conducted by the China Center for Disease Control, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, shows that seven out of 10 adults reported being exposed to secondhand smoke in a typical week.

Smoking is estimated to kill more than one million Chinese a year. They die from chronic respiratory ailments like tuberculosis and emphysema, and from cancers affecting the lungs, mouth, liver and stomach. Another report by Chinese and international experts led by China CDC deputy director Yang Gonghuan and Tsinghua professor Hu Angang projects that the deaths attributable to tobacco in China will rise to 3.5 million per year by 2030.

"That is an astounding number given that we know how to prevent tobacco-attributable death and disease," says Dr. Sarah England, the World Health Organization's (WHO) Tobacco Free Initiative Officer in China.

But despite the unsettling statistics the Chinese are reticent to kick the habit. While the West has glamorised smoking in films and through celebrity use, China's national leaders have given smoking a respectable image. Chairman Mao was a heavy smoker until his death at the age of 82. Deng Xiaoping, who preferred Panda cigarettes, died at 92. But smoking is not confined to the powerful elite. Many Chinese celebrities, artists and athletes can be seen smoking in public, and some Chinese associate wealth and sophistication with puffing a cigarette.

It has certainly been an uphill struggle to change public opinion. A smoke after a meal is still customary, and there is an oft quoted saying that "a smoke after dinner is better than life after death."

Every year as China celebrates the Spring Festival gifts are exchanged and it is not uncommon to see cigarettes being given. Such sales add to the massive tax revenue earned by the government. Tobacco is also a significant employer. Companies produce and sell more than 400 cigarette brands in the country, ranging from the high-end Zhonghua and Double Happiness to cheaper brands like Little Panda and Yellow Pagoda.

The tobacco industry has been so profitable it was able to pay the government $75.13 billion in taxes in 2009, said Zhang Xiulian, spokesman of the State Tobacco Monopoly Bureau.

While China does not require cigarette packaging to carry any warning about health hazards, they are occasionally displayed. But few take notice of such warnings.

"The tobacco industry's obstruction is the fundamental cause of ineffective tobacco control," says a report coauthored by Yang and Hu. However, in recent years, the Chinese government has banned tobacco companies from public advertising and from sponsoring sports and cultural events. It has also launched education campaigns in schools and in local media.

Five years ago China officially became a party to the World Health Organization's Framework Convention Tobacco Control. But aside a few piecemeal efforts to discourage the habit there have been few laws passed.

But at this year's 12th National Party Congress the Chinese government approved new legislation to outlaw smoking in public places [Xinhua]. But the All-China Women's Federation appears unimpressed.

"The government has not taken enough measures to restrict smoking in public areas. It is not just a question of weak regulations but also weak implementation," says a statement from the federation, a quasi-government group that lobbies for women's rights and has 40 million members.

According to the Health Ministry, new regulations will come into effect on 1st May banning smoking in public places including buses, restaurants and bars. However there are exceptions. Smoking will still be permitted in workplaces.

Previously, the Ministry of Health had only banned smoking in hospitals but these new regulations go further and include a ban on cigarette vending machines in public areas and a call for programmes to warn about the dangers of smoking. There are also proposals to restrict sales of tobacco near to schools [Xinhua]. Authorities have yet to announce how they will enforce the measures and whether there will be penalties for businesses or individuals breaking the rules.

While smoking at restaurants and bars is popular amongst the Chinese, expats in China have mixed opinions. Many see China as a place where they can freely enjoy a cigarette with their meal or drink. In fact in some bars it is difficult to spot a non-smoker. But there are many who welcome the ban. "I come home from bars smelling like smoke," says Feliz Lopez, a non-smoking 20 year old college student visiting Beijing from New York. "Restaurants and bars assume patrons smoke so there are ashtrays on tables, and there is no distinction between smoking and non-smoking sections." [BBC / CNN / Xinhua].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

No comments: