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    At Xiamen Marathon, China’s ‘Smoking Big Brother’ Runs Into a Ban

    In 2022, Chen Bangxian shot to fame for chain-smoking his way to the end of a marathon. His repeat of the act at the Xiamen International Marathon in early January has now led to disciplinary action.

    In November 2022, Chen Bangxian, a 50-year-old Chinese amateur marathon runner, shot to internet fame for completing a marathon while chain-smoking cigarettes. Known as “Smoking Big Brother,” he finished the 42-kilometer Jiande City marathon in the eastern Zhejiang province with an impressive time of three hours and 28 minutes.

    But in a stark reversal of fortunes this year, his distinctive habit led to swift penalties at the recently concluded Xiamen International Marathon: a two-year ban from the event, cancellation of his race results, and the possibility of further disciplinary action from the Chinese Athletic Association (CAA).

    This marks not only the first penalty in the 2024 domestic marathon season but the first time that action has been taken against a participant for smoking during a race. Similarly, another participant, surnamed Lin, received a two-year ban from the same event for unauthorized use of a first aid electric vehicle during the race.

    In 2022, though Chen gained national attention, his smoking habit during races sparked both widespread disapproval among fellow runners and public outcry on social media, with some advocating for his ban from future events. At that time, China lacked explicit regulations prohibiting smoking in marathons.

    But in regulations released in October 2023, the Xiamen event specifically classified smoking as “uncivilized behavior,” along with other actions such as public urination, littering, damaging flower beds and green areas, and endangering the safety of other runners. The Xiamen International Marathon, held on Jan. 7 in the eastern Fujian province, is renowned globally. This year’s event drew approximately 136,000 registrants, with over 30,000 participants.

    Yet, in numerous other cities, efforts to ban smoking during marathons are still in the early stages. Host cities like Hangzhou and Guangzhou have regulations that address forms of “uncivilized behavior,” but they stop short of specifically banning smoking. Some cities are expected to announce smoking bans in the run-up to the events.

    Thirty-two-year-old marathon runner Ma Yujun, a seasoned athlete with 13 years of experience, said he supported such penalties, particularly against smoking. “(The running community) truly despise this behavior. During and after exercising, we need to breathe more oxygen. Inhaling second-hand smoke in these moments is not only detestable but also significantly affects those around,” Ma explained.

    In the past few years, the country has made more and more efforts to prohibit smoking in certain avenues.

    Since 2010, Shanghai has enforced a ban on smoking in competition and performance areas, a policy later adopted by Hangzhou in eastern China in 2018. Individuals found violating these rules may incur fines of up to 200 yuan ($28), while organizers or administrative bodies neglecting their smoking control duties could face penalties ranging from 2,000 to 20,000 yuan.

    In 2011, China implemented nationwide regulations aimed at reducing smoking in public spaces. These regulations prohibit smoking in indoor public areas and stipulate that outdoor smoking zones in public spaces should not be positioned on pedestrian paths.

    Recent data from the National Health Commission shows that as of 2022, there are approximately 350 million smokers in China, nearly a quarter of the population. A significant portion of this demographic is over the age of 36, as per a 2022 study in the Peking University Journal (Health Science).

    Additional reporting: Lü Xiaoxi; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Moments after the Xiamen marathon kicked off, Fujian province, Jan. 7, 2024. Wang Dongming/CNS/VCG)