May 1, 2011 in Nation/World

Smoke-free push begins in China

Culture, state cigarette monopoly pose hurdles
Benjamin Haas Los Angeles Times

BEIJING – On sunny days, Xu Dongguang, a manager of a trendy cafe in downtown Beijing, arranges tables outside for patrons to while away the afternoon, reading, drinking coffee and chain-smoking. But starting today, all bars, restaurants, hospitals and other public places in China are slated to become smoke-free, inside and out.

A few days before the ban was set to go into effect, many places in Beijing had only heard of the restrictions from news reports, and no one had received an official notice. Xu didn’t have plans to comply.

“Our whole restaurant is the smoking section,” he said. “Maybe we’ll try to ask people to go outside, but in the end, the customer is God.”

Efforts to ban smoking in public places here have been plagued by false starts and failed campaigns. China, with the world’s largest population, also has the most smokers – more than 300 million – a deeply entrenched smoking culture and little awareness among the general public about the health risks.

The current ban was mandated by the State Council, China’s top administrative body, in response to a World Health Organization treaty Beijing signed in 2006 pledging to enact nationwide tobacco-control legislation within five years. China already has missed the deadline by almost five months.

The law mandates a penalty of 30,000 yuan, or about $4,600, for owners of establishments that do not comply, but it is still unclear who will enforce the ban and what actions will trigger such a steep fine.

Many Chinese businessmen greet each other with rounds of cigarette giving, and it’s rare a business deal that concludes without one party giving the other expensive tobacco.

“When I applied for permits (for the bar), I would always give officials cigarettes as a present,” said Lin Tao, a bar owner.

One posh brand of smokes readily available in fashionable Beijing malls is Panda Cigarettes, which cost 700 yuan, or about $107, a pack. Most brands, however, cost about $2 a pack.

China accounts for a third of all cigarettes smoked worldwide, and about 3,000 people die every day here from smoking-related illness, according to the World Health Organization.

Public health experts doubt that the ban will be immediately effective, citing legal and education obstacles.

“I would be very surprised if it were enforced from May 1,” said Sarah England, a WHO technical officer. “The law will need to be interpreted by the local and municipal authorities before it has a real impact.”

She also noted the lack of a nationwide public education campaign similar to those in the West, so “only 23 percent of adults believe smoking causes cancer or other health problems.”

The ultimate hurdle to enforcing a smoking ban might be the government itself, which has a direct stake in the industry. China National Tobacco Corp. is a state-owned cigarette monopoly and the world’s largest tobacco company. In 2009, more than 7.5 percent of government revenue, or $77.3 billion, came from taxes and profits related to tobacco, according to the China Daily.

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