Can China Ban Smoking?

Businesses fear unequal impact if some comply and others don't.

2011.04.29
A man smokes a cigarette in Beijing, March 24, 2011.
AFP

New regulations will come into force in China on Sunday banning smoking in indoor public places, but experts and doctors have criticized the ban as lacking teeth.

China's estimated 300 million smokers will be prohibited from lighting up in indoor public places like restaurants, bars, and shopping malls after May 1, 2011, according to the new rules.

But official media report that the authorities have yet to specify punishments for businesses that fail to enforce the ban.

Professor Wu Yiqun of Beijing's Research Center for Health Development welcomed the ban as a genuine breakthrough, but said further measures were needed.

"Tobacco control measures need to be a unified package," Wu said. "They should include pursuing businesses to enforce compliance."

"Punishment is essential for a law like this to be effective," he said.

The Ministry of Health regulations state that smoking will be banned in all enclosed public locations including hotels, restaurants, theaters, and waiting rooms at railway stations and airports starting May 1.

The rules call on business owners to set up conspicuous nonsmoking signs, carry out promotional activities to warn people of the dangers of smoking, and encourage their employees to dissuade smokers from lighting up.

The new regulation also says that outdoor smoking areas should not obstruct pedestrian walkways and that cigarette vending machines should be excluded from public places.

Enforcement necessary

But Professor Wu said dedicated enforcement teams are necessary to make sure private businesses comply with the ban.

"We need an in-depth debate about how best to enforce this law," he said.

Zeng Jun, a doctor at Guangzhou's No. 1 Hospital, said the new rules have put business owners at the front line of enforcement.

"It will create unfair competition if some business owners take responsibility while others don't," Zeng said.

"This is what happened when they banned plastic bags ... people didn't go to buy things at the shops that didn't issue them any more."

"If the government doesn't take charge ... then some businesses, especially the lower-end kind of businesses, will become unmanageable," Zeng said.

But according to Yang Gonghuan, director of China's National Office of Tobacco Control, the business owners' role is entirely appropriate.

"It is realistic to demand a bigger role for these business owners in dissuading smokers," Yang was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.

Millions exposed

Experts say an estimated 700 million Chinese people are routinely exposed to harmful second-hand smoke.

However, the health ministry rules do not specify any form of punishment for businesses that fail to uphold the ban, and no penalties are specified for people who continue to smoke in areas affected by the ban.

Smoking, and especially the gift of multiple packs of top-quality brand-name cigarettes, have formed an integral part of social and official relationships in mainland China since Communist Party rule began.

Cigarettes have traditionally been handed out as free gifts at political meetings and conferences, and the resolution of minor disputes among strangers sometimes begins with the offering of cigarettes.

Many of China's top leaders, including Communist Party icon Mao Zedong, were widely known to enjoy the habit.

Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Wei Ling for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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