Thank You for Not Smoking, Beijing

2016-05-31 06:48:51

The city of Beijing may be making strides in its quest to stamp out tobacco. But it’s going to be a long drag for China as a whole to achieve that goal. 

On the eve of World No Tobacco Day, which falls on Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) representative in China commended the Chinese capital for its determination to make public space smoke-free but dismissed a national law drafted on the topic as toothless.

Beijing’s law is the harshest tobacco control legislation to date in China. From June 1, 2015, tobacco smoking is banned in all indoor public places in the capital, including restaurants, offices, and public transportation, with no exceptions.

“Beijing has been at the top of a league of global cities that have been leading the pack,” said the WHO’s China head, Dr. Barnard Schwartlander, referring to anti-smoking legislation.

In contrast, a national law proposed by the State Council “contained too many loopholes,” he added.

Schwartlander told Sixth Tone a key problem was the number of exceptions that the national law proposed. Effective anti-smoking regulations, including those in Beijing, usually have simplicity as a core concept. Laws should be “simple, clear and with no exceptions,” he said.

“The moment you water things down, it makes it difficult to enforce because people won’t understand [the rules],” Schwartlander said.

According to Schwartlander, one factor that could explain the gap between the drafted national law and the Beijing standards is the presence of a strong lobbying force on the national level. He said that in cities such as Shanghai, the tobacco industry has a strong presence and wields considerable influence.

Currently, China is the world’s largest grower, manufacturer, and consumer of tobacco, and it has the largest workforce of tobacco farmers, manufacturers, and sellers. China Tobacco, a state-owned monopoly, manufactured about 2.5 trillion cigarettes in 2013. It’s also tightly linked to the Chinese economy, feeding over 7 percent of the central government’s annual coffers through taxes and net income, according to statistics from the World Lung Foundation.

As China’s economic growth slows, there is a fear that a strong anti-smoking law could have negative consequences.

Some net users questioned the feasibility of such law. “Tobacco brings in millions of taxes every year,” netizen Yi Najue commented. “How could you ban it?”

“The truth is that a ban would not hurt the economy,” Schwartlander said. “Actually, it would protect the economy by supplying healthier workers.”

An editorial in party paper People’s Daily on Monday said that it is prime time for the old economic structure to change. It argued that profits are hindering the tobacco industry from embracing plain packaging that would discourage smoking. To achieve a smoke-free China, multi-pronged approaches have to be implemented in the long term, it said. 

In 2015 the WHO said that smoking is on course to kill 100 million Chinese in this century, and it warned that if the Chinese continue the habit, that rate could increase to 3 million per year by 2050.

Yet for many in China — in particular in the country’s heartland — smoking is an integral part of culture. At business banquets, for example, it’s not uncommon for participants to ply one another with alcohol and tobacco as gestures of goodwill.

From Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping, China has a long history of luminary smokers. However, “ashtray diplomacy” has abated thanks to a policy introduced in 2013.

Xinhua, China’s state news agency, said that government officials are not allowed to smoke in schools, hospitals, sports venues, public transport, or any other places where smoking is banned. They’re also not allowed to smoke or offer cigarettes when performing official duties, and they cannot use public funds to buy cigarettes. Finally, the policy prohibited the sale and advertisement of tobacco products in government buildings.

Still, the cultural preference for smoking persists, although Schwartlander insists that it can be changed.

“Smoking is not in the genes,” he said. “It’s a culture that’s learned, and it can be unlearned as well.”

Schwartlander gave the example of Russia, which at one time had one of the highest adult smoking rates in Europe. However, after adopting a strict anti-tobacco law in 2013, the number of smokers in Russia fell by 17 percent in two years, according to the WHO.

According to Schwartlander, China is at a “critical state” in terms of tobacco control, adding, “I don’t think it’s too late.”

Additional reporting by Colum Murphy.

(Header image: A man smokes in front of a ‘no smoking’ sign outside a shopping mall in Shanghai, Jan. 10, 2014. Aly Song/Reuters)