Olympic Games: Can Beijing Stop 4m People Smoking in Public?

The Times
1 April 2007

Puffing their way through more than two trillion cigarettes a year, more people smoke in China than any other country. Now the people of Beijing will have to kick the habit as the city tries to clean up its act before the Olympic Games.

Smoking is the latest target of the authorities in the capital, who are already clamping down on spitting in the street and trying to persuade commuters to leave their cars at home. It had long been rumoured that smoking would be banned in most public places for the Games, and officials have now revealed that from May 1 it will be prohibited in all government offices and on public transport. Smoke and you incur a fine of £350.

The rules appear to fall short of an outright ban in restaurants, bars and clubs, but they will have to provide non-smoking areas and hotels must offer smoke-free rooms.

Enforcing the ban will not be easy. The capital already forbids smoking in cinemas, sports arenas and venues such as airports and railway stations. In theory, Beijing’s 66,000 taxi drivers have been banned from smoking since last October and the Olympic organisers have urged a ban in all hotels serving athletes and in all competition venues and restaurants in the Olympic Village by June. But in a country where lighting up is not only a pleasure but a sign of machismo, a way to greet friends and bribe officials – a pack of 20 can cost as little as 10p – the prohibition is routinely flouted.

Cui Dalin, the Deputy Sports Minister, told legislators that the Olympics would inspire Chinese to lead healthier lives. He promptly stepped out into a non-smoking hallway and lit up. The world and Olympic 110 metre hurdles champion Liu Xiang – a national hero – advertises for Baishan, a Chinese tobacco company.

More than 350 million Chinese are smokers, about a quarter of the population. Beijing, a city of about 15 million people, is estimated to have four million smokers. A million Chinese die each year from smoking-related diseases and the number is projected to double by 2020.

Cui Xiaobo, a professor at the Capital University of Medical Sciences, said: “The world will be watching Beijing because its success means a big step towards the success of the whole world, given the large smoking population of China.”

In the thick of the fug there is an anti smoking ray of light. Last year the authorities wrote to 30,000 restaurants in the city asking them to impose smoking bans. Almost all ignored the suggestion, but one took it up: a branch of the Meizhou Dongpo restaurant, serving the spicy food of southwestern Sichuan province.

Revenue plummeted by 8 per cent in the first two months but it has picked up as word has got out to non-smokers. Its posters read: “Smoke-free restaurant: a mountain forest in the city.” Its promise of fresh air is starting to win people over, Guo Xiaodong, the deputy manager, said. “Some customers didn’t understand why there was a ban in a restaurant – a public place. They think cigarettes and liquor can’t be separated.”

At the many business and bureaucratic banquets that grease the wheels of China’s vibrant economy, deal-brokering over a cigarette and several glasses of fiery baijiu liquor are de rigueur.

One Beijing female office worker voiced delight at the ban. “It will be so much nicer to go out for a meal,” she said. “But does anyone really believe it will work?”

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