China's latest effort to break the smoking habit of millions of its people looked doomed to fail yesterday – there are currently no penalties for those caught flouting a new ban on smoking inside public venues.
There are 350 million smokers in the country and the tobacco industry employs millions more. The tax revenues from tobacco are a major income source for state coffers, which means the government is no hurry to have people quit.
Smoking is a national pastime in China, where offering a cigarette is still the first step in a long friendship in the countryside, and where restaurants, bars and concert halls are thick with the fug of cigarette smoke. Cigarette cartons are commonly exchanged as gifts and a modern tradition at some wedding ceremonies is for brides to hand cigarettes to all the men at the ceremony and then light them. More than half of Chinese men smoke (including almost half of all male doctors) and 2.4 per cent of women, although that figure is rising.
At an indoors cash lobby in Beijing yesterday, a group of men puffed away. "Ban? What ban? First I've heard of it," said one.
The authorities have already, largely successfully, stopped people smoking in hospitals, schools and on buses – although there are plenty of exceptions. Smoking-related diseases kill around 1.2 million Chinese every year and the death rate is expected to rise to 3.5 million by 2030, according to estimates by the World Health Organisation and the Chinese health ministry.
Under the new ban from the health ministry, owners of bars and restaurants must have visible non-smoking signs, warn people of the dangers of smoking, and encourage their staff to dissuade people from smoking.
The new rules are meant to "promote public awareness of the harmful effects of smoking", and for people to "gradually accept the concept of smoking control", the Xinhua news agency reported. Outdoor smoking areas should not be on public pathways and cigarette vending machines should be excluded from public places, according to the ban.
While hailing the ban as an important step in the right direction, one of China's leading tobacco control lobbyists, Yang Gonghuan, deputy director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said the move was too hasty and lacked teeth. "Without a successful mass campaign, tobacco control is doomed to fail," she told state media.
A survey by her organisation showed that only 25 per cent of Chinese were aware of the harm posed by smoking and passive smoking. The China National Tobacco Corporation, the state-run cash cow that holds an effective monopoly on the industry, paid £45bn in taxes to the Chinese government last year. In 2009, the industry produced 2,300 billion cigarettes.
It is hardly surprising then, that Beijing has dragged its feet in adopting the ban, which the authorities bought in four months after a deadline set by the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which China ratified five years ago.
Smoking and punishment
One of the only countries in the world where police have the power to enter private homes to search for tobacco products. Any smoker who wishes to use tobacco needs to carry a customs receipt proving that their tobacco was legally imported.
Smoking is forbidden in all public enclosed spaces. Cafés and restaurants which ignore the ban can face an enforced closure of up to three days or a large fine.
Smoking in public is officially banned, but the regulations are usually ignored. As of 2010, smokers may be barred from high-profile government jobs because of their habit. Leo Hornak
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies