Peking pours cold water on public smokers

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One could tell by the atmosphere that something very serious had happened overnight. Yesterday groups of men stood furtively on street corners, under a pall of melancholy. Strategically chosen shop stalls had been abandoned. And inside the Number 1 Department Store and the city's main railway stations, dragoons of inspectors were poised to pounce.

So began Day Zero for Peking's smokers. From now on, the capital's nicotine-imbibers are not allowed to light up in hospitals, schools and colleges, public meeting halls, cinemas, music and video halls, sports stadiums, museums, shops, on public transport or in waiting rooms. Those who do risk a fine of 10 yuan (80 pence).

In the Haidian district alone yesterday, the Hygiene Bureau had despatched 5,000 "enforcers" on to the streets. Such were the first indications that life as it had unhealthily been known by Pekingers had come to an abrupt end, especially for most of the city's males.

The front page of one of Peking's main newspapers yesterday spelt out the hard facts: "The first day that smoking is forbidden in public places," it heralded. Banners strung around the city reminded everyone of just what was at stake: "Maintain public morality, forbidden to smoke in public."

Peking - which will host the 1997 10th World Conference on Tobacco or Health - has thus joined the list of 26 Chinese cities trying to impose restrictions on public smoking. In a culture where no cadre member can address weighty matters without a cigarette in his hand and a fog around his head, the time had come for the government to raise its head above the clouds of stale smoke.

Smoking is still permitted on the streets, in restaurants, in government offices and at home. But a massive public education programme is underway across the city, part of a national campaign to avert a future epidemic in lung cancers, respiratory diseases, and smoking-related heart problems.

As smoking challenges go, China has the world's biggest. Surveys indicate that 70 per cent of men in China over the age of 25 smoke. Up to 350 million Chinese smokers puff their way through 1,700 billion cigarettes a year and foreign companies are scrambling to grab a share of the world's last great tobacco market. The number of women smokers is increasing, and an alarming number of children and teenagers start smoking at school. The media gave prominence earlier this year to a 19-year-old youth who smoked 100 cigarettes for a bet, then died of a heart attack.

The present campaign has a certain Chinese flavour: in aPeking park last weekend, a doctor injected cigarette smoke-infused water into a mouse, whose death throes were held up for the crowd as a warning.

Yan Dongming, a salesman in a noodle factory, said he had been smoking for almost half his 33 years, but a smoker's life was no longer easy. "Whenever I cross the street," he said,"people cry out and say, 'Beat him'. Because I am a smoker."