China’s New Smoking Ban – Is It for Real?
This week, China’s Ministry of Health (MOH) announced that China will impose a Bloomberg-style ban on smoking in indoor public areas starting May 1, this year (just over a month from now). According to an article published in People’s Daily by Yang Gonghuan, deputy head of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the ban will apply to all restaurants, bars, Internet cafes, and public forms of transportation. I’ve seen conflicting information on whether it will apply to factories, offices, elevators, hotel lobbies, and hospital waiting rooms (where smoking, believe it or not, is quite common). Obviously, the ban would take some time to phase in, but the goal is to have no smoke and no smoking-related advertising in any public area in China by 2020.
So does this signal a dramatic new reality for smokers in China? Count me as a skeptic. In the lead-up to the Olympics in 2008, Beijing announced a similar smoking ban — and everyone completely ignored it. Authorities, unable — and unwilling — to enforce the ban, fell back to requiring all restaurants to create non-smoking sections. Now if you visit an upscale Beijing restaurant and ask for a non-smoking table, they’ll give you one — although it may be just a few feet from someone puffing away in the “smoking section.” But if you go to a neighborhood restaurant and make the same request, they’ll look at you like you’re nuts. Smoking is supposedly prohibited in Beijing taxis but most of them reek of cigarettes anyway, since no taxi driver is going to pick a fight with a customer who lights up. Chinese authorities may be willing to crack heads when it comes to petitioners and dissidents, but they seem to regard smoking as one of life’s little pleasures that it’s best not to mess with.
China’s government also has a direct interest in the cigarette business. The China National Tobacco Corp. (CNTC) is a state monopoly, and the largest tobacco company in the world, producing 2.3 trillion cigarettes in 2009 — about 1/3 of the world total. According to China Daily, China’s tobacco industry generated RMB 513 billion (US$ 77 billion) in taxes and profits in 2009, more than 7.5% of the central government’s total revenue, and employed 520,000 workers in 183 factories.
Health officials like Yang argue that the government’s revenues from tobacco — as high as they are — are outweighed by its outlays in medical costs for health problems due to smoking, by as much as 20%. Yang estimates that tobacco kills 1.2 million Chinese a year, a number he says will double by 2025 and triple by 2050. Cases of lung cancer in China have soared more than fivefold since 1980, and now account for 1/4 of all cancer deaths. Advisors to MOH argue that the most economical approach would be to raise cigarette taxes from 40% to 50% or more, which they say would boost revenue while reducing smoking. (For the record, a modest tax hike two years ago, in 2009, did bring increased revenues, but had no apparent impact on consumption).
I’m not a big fan of higher taxes or nanny-state regulations — I’d settle for a little bit of courtesy. Smoking is so ingrained in China’s masculine culture that some middle-aged Chinese businessmen seem to think they’re doing you a positive favor by billowing smoke at you and your obviously pregnant wife. Younger people and women, in contrast, tend to show a lot more sensitivity to non-smokers. Nevertheless, I doubt that even China’s most inveterate smokers have much to fear from the latest initiative. As the New York Times reports:
there are considerable loopholes [in the new indoor smoking rules] … more important, they lack specific penalty guidelines. That detail has prompted shrugs among devoted smokers, many of whom have long since learned to ignore the no-smoking signs in hospital waiting areas, gymnasium locker rooms and elevators.
“Chinese people, including most government officials, are just too in love with their cigarettes to pay attention to such a law,” said Liu Bailing, 28, a bank employee dining beneath a cumulus cloud of smoke at a restaurant here on Thursday evening.
Will he still be puffing away come May 1st? Stay tuned.