China brings in smoking ban ahead of Olympics

While doubts linger about the air quality in the Chinese capital before the Olympic Games in August, athletes can at least be sure of a smoke-free environment during the event after officials in Beijing introduced a ban on smoking in public areas.

China is the world's most enthusiastic smoking nation, home to one in three of the world's smokers. But, starting yesterday, smokers are out on the street as part of a campaign to improve the urban environment ahead of the Games.

There is absolutely no smoking in schools, hospitals or government offices, as well as at all 37 Olympic sites, including indoor and outside stadiums, training facilities and the Olympic village. Hotels, restaurants and bars face a partial ban, with smoking and no-smoking areas required.

The rules expand restrictions first introduced in 1995 to include health clubs, museums, ancient temples and government offices.

The first smoke-free Olympic Games were in Barcelona in 1992 and the organisers of Beijing's Games have been on a mission to keep up that tradition.

On the face of it, the penalties look slight. Individual violators will be fined 70p, while companies and institutions that violate the ban face fines of between £70 and £360. Just 2,000 inspectors will enforce the ban, while another 60,000 officials have been assigned to educate people about the dangers of smoking.

However, goodwill for projects relating to the Olympics seems boundless and Beijingers have readily embraced other measures introduced to improve public behaviour.

Last year, dozens of security guards took matters into their own hands, using metal pipes to beat up a group of builders who were having a fag break from their work building the Olympic Stadium, contravening a ban on smoking at Olympic construction sites.

Ever more restricted in how they sell cigarettes elsewhere in the world, multinational companies are looking to China for growth.

The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration reckons one in four of the country's 1.3 billion people light up on a regular basis, including 50 million teenage smokers. The biggest rise in smokers has been among women – more women in Beijing have taken up smoking in the past 10 years, even though the overall rate is declining.

The Health Ministry says one million Chinese die of smoking-related illnesses every year – the World Health Organisation estimates that could rise to 2.2 million annually by 2020 if smoking rates remain unchanged. Diseases associated with passive smoking kill 100,000 Chinese annually, while more than half a billion suffer from the smoke exhaled from cigarettes.

Despite the alarming health statistics, implementing a smoking ban has come in the face of strong political opposition: the powerful tobacco lobby has argued that stamping out smoking threatens stability. The tobacco industry representative Zhang Baozhen pointed out last year how the Soviet Union had riots when cigarettes were not available, and said widening a smoking ban could lead to something similar happening on Chinese streets.

Restaurateurs are also unhappy. State media reports how Beijing's first smoking-free restaurant, Meizhou Dongpo, saw fewer customers after it enforced a smoking ban in October.

There are also strong fiscal reasons for keeping the ashtrays brimming. Tax revenues from cigarettes pour £16bn a year into government coffers, and the tobacco industry employs 60 million people.

But this year the government announced plans to set up a national network of anti-smoking clinics, with at least one outpatient facility in each province.

Living in the clouds

At times it seems like a national pastime – friendly farmers offer cigarettes to visitors before saying hello, packets of fags are given out as gifts at funerals and weddings, and no Chinese train journey is complete without multiple proffering of smokes across the carriage.

The newly expanded ban on smoking in the Chinese capital is only partial in Beijing's burgeoning nightclub and eatery scene but hopefully it will make a difference. Waking up after a night out in Beijing, your hair and clothes smell like an ashtray full of Zhongnanhai butts. And the sight of a group of doctors sparking up ciggies outside the cancer ward at a Beijing hospital is still one of the more remarkable sights I've seen.

A Tibetan friend once quipped that the way to keep his Han Chinese friends quiet was to take away their cigarettes, so central is tobacco to the social mores of the country.

Every meeting room in China is lined with armchairs covered with antimacassars and each with its own ashtray. The late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping smoked constantly during his meetings with Margaret Thatcher to decide Hong Kong's fate. This week's expanded ban is the latest initiative aimed at improving public behaviour before the Olympics, including campaigns against spitting, littering and queue-jumping. A big step in the war on smoking came last October, when smoking in taxis was banned.

There has also been a campaign to stop people smoking on-screen. The actor Huang Xiaoming was criticised for smoking too much in the popular TV show The Bund, although critics conceded he looked very convincing as a 1930s Shanghai gangster.

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