Not only is China the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco, one-fourth of its population smokes and smoking causes more than 2,000 deaths in the country everyday. With this figure expected to quadruple by 2050, the country has launched a “people’s war” against tobacco.
The latest move involves putting 100,000 smoking monitors in place to enforce no-smoking zones in the capital from May 1, in preparation for “smoke-free” Olympics.
If as many as 100 million Chinese men currently aged under 30 are expected to die from tobacco use, about a quarter of the deaths among middle-aged Indian men are caused by smoking. And, according to the Public Health Foundation of India, our country loses $7.2 billion as health expenditure alone because of tobacco consumption.
The case for smoke-free environments is strong. According to the WHO, non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke in the workplace show up to 19 per cent increased risk of developing lung cancer and up to 35 per cent increased risk of suffering acute coronary diseases.
The 2008 WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic points out that the tobacco industry itself acknowledges the effectiveness of completely smoke-free environments. It quotes an internal statement by Philip Morris: “Total prohibition of smoking in the workplace strongly affects industry volume. … Milder workplace restrictions, such as smoking only in designated areas, have much less impact on quitting rates and very little effect on consumption.”
The report also provides evidence contradicting the tobacco industry’s claim that smoke-free legislation is costly to business. When Ireland became the first country in the world to become smoke-free in 2004, the industry argued that a smoking ban would cause irreparable harm to Irish pub culture. But in the years since, not only has business seen little negative impact, ambient air nicotine concentrations have decreased by 83 per cent and bar workers’ exposure to second-hand smoke plunged from 30 hours per week to zero.
In China, smoke-free public places may still be few and far between, but 90 percent people living in large cities - smokers and non-smokers alike - support a ban on smoking on public transport, schools and hospitals. More than 80 per cent support a smoking ban in workplaces, and about half support banning smoking in restaurants and bars.
Ultimately it’s a question of implementation. In the Indian capital for instance, despite a 1997 law banning smoking in public places, it’s still not an uncommon sight to see people lighting up either on the streets or even the hospitals.
In the Chinese capital, large numbers of people are still lighting up in violation of a 1995 National People’s Congress regulation banning smoking in most public places. On the positive side, smokers older than 15 years have come down from 34.5 to 23 per cent of the population.
And nearly 400 years after philosopher Fang Yizhi observed how smoking “scorches one’s lungs,” China looks like its ready to take the battle against tobacco into high gear.