Cui Dalin, China’s deputy sports minister, told legislators that the Beijing Olympics would inspire Chinese to live healthier lives. Then he stepped out into a non-smoking hallway — and lit a cigarette.
The recent incident illustrates the uphill battle China faces as it prepares to take what health advocates hope will be a big step against smoking in what is the world’s biggest tobacco market. A ban on smoking in most Beijing public places, similar to efforts in major North American, European and Asian cities, is expected to take effect in May, aimed at meeting China’s pledge of a smoke-free Olympics.
China is home to 350 million smokers — a third of the global total. More than 150 Chinese cities already have limited restrictions, but the capital would be the first to ban smoking in all restaurants, offices and schools, said health expert Cui Xiaobo, who helped draft the regulations. The restaurant ban may be limited at first.
“There’s no way it will work!” said Jin Xianchun, a co-owner of Little Jin’s Seafood Restaurant, where diners were smoking up a storm as they chose live fish and shrimp from tanks. “Of course it will affect my business.... We will try our best to enforce, it but really...” She shook her head.
Cigarettes are woven into Chinese daily life. They’re an icebreaker, a way of greeting a friend, and a means of bribery. A night out typically means a good meal and cigarettes paired with baijiu, a clear sorghum liquor with a vicious kick.
Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the late communist founding fathers, were heavy smokers, and their favourite brands are as well known as they are: Panda for Deng and Zhonghua (China) for Mao.
Almost 2 trillion cigarettes are sold every year, at prices as low as 1.50 yuan ($0.20) for a pack of 20, complete with a discreet warning on the side of the box that says: “Smoking is harmful to your health”. The government estimates 1 million Chinese die smoking-related deaths annually — projected to double by 2020. Beijing has had some smoking restrictions since 1995, when the
municipal government prohibited lighting up in large public venues such as schools, sports arenas and movie theatres.
The new rules, which were announced in state media on Saturday, expand the scope to include restaurants, bars, hotels, offices, vacation resorts and all indoor areas of medical facilities, according to a draft released earlier this year.
“The whole world will be watching Beijing, because its success means a big step toward the success of the whole world, given the large smoking population of China,” said Cui, an associate professor at the Capital University of Medical Sciences in Beijing.