Breaking the habit: China’s deadly smoking addiction

New research shows two million Chinese will die each year from smoking as officials bear down to enforce a public ban.

Dancers perform in front of anti-smoking banners at the iconic Bird's Nest National Stadium on World No Tobacco Day [Ng Han Guan/AP]

Beijing, China – When a ban on smoking in public spaces came into force in Beijing this year, 42-year-old communications manager Yucen Zheng gave his boss some advice. 

“I suggested the workplace be divided into two parts – like a restaurant. One smoking area, one non-smoking. But he didn’t agree, so I started smoking 10 cigarettes before I got to work to get me through the morning,” Yucen told Al Jazeera.

China is the world’s largest consumer of tobacco; one-in-three of the planet’s cigarettes are smoked here.

Research released recently suggests that unless smoking rates drop, roughly two million Chinese people – mostly men – will die every year starting in 2030, and one-in-three young Chinese men will eventually die from the habit.

 Beijing stubs out smoking in public spaces

But despite such alarming statistics, efforts to curb and banish smoking from public places have been weakly enforced – until now.

Shanghai made an attempt to go smoke-free in 2010 in time for its World Expo, banning smoking in certain types of public buildings, such as primary schools and hospitals.

Beijing made a similar effort before the 2008 Olympics. But neither ban prompted a decisive break with the past.

However, this time, China’s capital city means business: Within days of June 1, when the regulation came into effect, officials got serious. 

A hugely popular hotpot restaurant chain was named and shamed for violating the code, members of the public were encouraged to report violations via a telephone hotline and WeChat account, and fines for individuals ($30) and companies ($1,600) were widely advertised.

‘Encouraging’ signs

“It’s still [in the ]early days, but the signs are very encouraging,” said Dr Angela Pratt, technical officer for the Tobacco Control Initiative at the World Health Organization’s office in China.

“The Beijing law makes all indoor and many outdoor public places 100-percent smoke-free, with no loopholes and no exceptions, which sets a powerful precedent for other cities to follow. It also paves the way for a strong national law.”

Hundreds of inspectors began keeping tabs on restaurants, hotels, hospitals, offices and public transport, and 700 warnings were issued in the first week of implementation.

But officials face a stiff challenge: In China, smoking cigarettes is not purely an act of personal choice, it also holds cultural sway. Cigarettes are deployed to curry favour with others. Whether you are trying to impress your boss, build connections with an official, or simply act like a great host, a box of cigarettes is the perfect icebreaker.

There is also limited understanding of the dangers of smoking. A 2008 study revealed that many Chinese smokers believe they can control the health effects of smoking via “measured” use. And 60 percent of doctors smoke, according to a China Daily report.

Wang, who asked that his full name not be published, works for an advertising company in Beijing and is responsible for enforcing the ban in his office. 

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“Some workers absolutely ignore the new rules,” he said. “I know they go to the rooftop to smoke secretly. But they do not dare to smoke in front of my eyes. I’m a smoker, so I do have sympathy. I do not give out harsh punishments. But I will fine those who blatantly break the rules.” 

The threat of a fine is usually enough to turn an office into a smoke-free zone, say workers.

‘Positive effect’

Computer engineer Nan Chen, 28, admits the ban has had a “positive effect” on his life.

“My boss imposed a 300 renminbi [$47] fine, so I had to follow the rules. I’ve gradually gotten used to working without smoking. I’ve cut down from 10 to five cigarettes each day,” said Nan.

“The people who hate the ban very much are those who have smoked for many years. Cigarettes are their friends. So if the government does not allow these ‘friends’ to appear in public, they become very angry.”

The big test for Beijing’s regulation will come in a few weeks’ time when temperatures start to drop. During the summer months, smokers have been happy to decamp outdoors. But attitudes could change come winter, noted Beijing-based restaurant owner Badr Benjelloun.


“No one in the Beijing scene expected the smoking ban to take off. Everyone said there’ll be people smoking next to the No Smoking signs. Now we don’t see people smoking in elevators and bathrooms any more. But when it gets to minus 10 Celsius, then we’re looking at a completely different set of data to work with,” he said.

A successful ban in Beijing would pave the way for provincial governments to draft their own regulations. But rolling out progressive laws outside of the capital could prove much more difficult.

Bob Boyce owns restaurants and bars across China and banned smoking indoors at his venues in Shanghai and Beijing five years ago.

“Attitudes towards smoking are very different across China. In Shanghai and Beijing, our customers were really keen to see this happen and welcomed the move. They would quote the regulations to us. 

“But it’s different in our second and third-tier city restaurants. Places such as Chengdu, Nanjing, Wuxi, Dalian and Tianjin are culturally very difficult. We still have sections in those restaurants for smoking and non-smoking. These places are probably about five to 10 years behind cities like Shanghai and Beijing,” he said.

Follow Sarah O’Meara on Twitter: @sarahomeara

Source: Al Jazeera