Tea Leaf Nation

Beijing’s Ban on Smoking Is Actually (Sort of) Working

That's no mean feat in a country that loves to light up.

BEIJING, CHINA-AUGUST 14 :A Chinese woman smokes a cigarette inside a disco in Beijing's Sanlitun night club district which are packed with foreigners in town to enjoy the Olympics, on August 14, 2008 in Beijing, China. The well known Sanlitun area has been cleaned up prior to the Olympic games and thrives with young people looking for a party.  (Photo Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA-AUGUST 14 :A Chinese woman smokes a cigarette inside a disco in Beijing's Sanlitun night club district which are packed with foreigners in town to enjoy the Olympics, on August 14, 2008 in Beijing, China. The well known Sanlitun area has been cleaned up prior to the Olympic games and thrives with young people looking for a party. (Photo Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

BEIJING – They rarely trash hotel rooms or boast about drugs, but Chinese rock stars could at least be counted on to smoke. Now even that’s starting to change in the face of a smoking ban in China’s capital that shows little sign of burning out, almost two months after it was first implemented. “Personally, I support the new ban,” old-school grunge act Xie Tianxiao announced on social media in June, after paparazzi snapped the icon sneaking a smoke at Beijing’s airport. He’s not the only one.

On June 1, the day after World No Tobacco Day, Beijing declared it would try — once again — to ban smoking in all its public places. The rule proscribes puffing in virtually every traditional venue: shops, public bathrooms, hospitals, bars, restaurants, trains, buses, and taxis. Those who ignore it risk a $32 fine, which escalates to $1,600 for any business that allows abusers on its premises. So far, over $16,000 worth of fines have been collected under the new rule, according to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Health and Family Planning, which announced the possibility of increasing individual penalties to $800. 

But what may prove more effective than the threat of a financial penalty is the growing realization that Beijing, already fending off notorious pollution, can no longer afford to carry the public-health burden of a citywide smoking habit as well.

The ban’s early success — one month after it began, the Beijing Association on Tobacco Control described the short-term results as “satisfactory” — is noteworthy. Environmental or health-friendly policies are often introduced to great fanfare in China, usually accompanied by amiable mantras like “Healthy City,” only to quietly fade due to lack of political will or commercial incentive. When it comes to smoking, Chinese cities have mostly proven willing to stub out only while international audiences are watching. What starts as erratic enforcement soon peters out, and the country light back up as soon as the world turns away. Take Guangzhou, the capital of southern Guangdong, which experimented with an ill-fated smoking crackdown in 2010, and has been doing so on-and-off, and without success, since 1995. Then there’s financial capital Shanghai, which made a similarly short-lived effort prior to its World Expo in 2010, themed “Better Life, Better City.” Beijing has also tried, with at least one half-hearted effort targeting large restaurants during the 2008 Olympics. That effectively ended when the foreign press went home.

Still, China’s capital has long regarded itself as a little different. Beijing is intended in part as a showcase for the superiority of the Chinese socialist system, and special emphasis has always been placed on the city as a vanguard of orderliness. As the first port of call for foreign delegations and visitors, and with vaunted aspirations to be a world city, it would satisfy Chinese leaders’ vanity for Beijing to keep up with the green, healthy policies of more developed rivals.

Though it’s too soon to declare any victory, almost two months after Beijing announced its ban, evidence of newfound abstinence still abounds. During fierce stock-market upheavals in mid-July, I spent a day at a Beijing trading hall, where one might expect more than a few tense puffs — yet only a few middle-aged smokers paced the building’s steps as stocks lit green within, signaling a loss. At one 24-hour bar in the Gongti nightclub district last weekend, notorious for its anything-goes atmosphere, tobacco fiends loitered outside, instead of indoors, where revelers at Beijing bars and clubs used to take drags beneath ubiquitous, universally ignored “no smoking” signs. The club’s manager confirmed the place was taking a firm line. Even smoker-friendly venues seem less smoky: over a dinner of spiced duck blood at my go-to local dive-restaurant on July 24, for example, I asked about the ban. “You can smoke,” the manager cheerfully reassured, offering to fetch an ashtray. “We’re a small restaurant and off the main road, so it’s fine.” Yet despite the many beer and strong baijiu liquor bottles accumulating on tables, the nicotine-laced fug was notably thinner than usual.

Beijing has come far since December 2009, when, at a Nicotine Dependence Conference held here to promote greater compliance among healthcare workers, one speaker warned that China had the largest number of male doctors who smoked — 60 percent — and many were unaware of its relation to diseases other than severe respiratory problems. In October that year, visiting an army hospital in central Beijing on several occasions, I observed patients blithely puffing away in elevators and bathrooms used as informal rec rooms by staff. An effective ban seemed unlikely then, if not outright impossible. That’s clearly changed. At the same hospital, I gently tested the ban in late July by wandering around with an unlit cigarette; I didn’t get past the crowded reception desk before earning a worried reprimand from a friendly youth in military uniform, clutching a baton. Inside, the odor of stale smoke and quashed butts that had permeated the place on previous visits seemed to have dissipated.

Those who work at other state-owned workplaces in Beijing, where bathrooms used to be frequently commandeered for cigarette breaks, say that signs now publically forbid it, while staff privately frown on the once-ubiquitous practice. “Actually, we are all for the ban,” said Lu Wei, a married smoker who works for a state-owned shipping company. His said his fellow smokers believe the ban has helped them cut back on the habit, while non-smoking peers, especially women, cheer them on. “My female co-workers even put up their own ‘no smoking’ notice in the office.”

As is usual in China’s top-down system, those who issue the rules don’t necessarily heed them. “On the first day of the ban, I didn’t smoke one cigarette in my office … On the third day, I smoked four or five … after that, everything basically went back normal,” one senior official told a reporter from state broadcaster China Radio International. He attributed his relapse to the importance of the “the ‘human’ element” in China, a likely reference to smoking’s role as a traditional facilitator of masculine bonding, not to mention bribery — the country sells cheap cigarettes, but also cartons that can cost $1,000. In business, the ritualistic offer of a cigarette can confer prestige and status. Then there’s the traditional fear of confronting higher-ups, which may explain the thousands of complaints health authorities have received on an official hotline set up to report smoking scofflaws.

The real test of Beijing’s latest anti-smoking effort may come when the capital’s roof terraces, beer gardens and patios close down for the frigid winter months. “People are fine with it now, because there’s plenty of room for them to sit outside,” said one restaurant manager, who says his business has already applied for permission to build further outdoor seating. (He asked to withhold his name so as not endanger the application). If anything, the manager said, the ban has been good for businesses that have space for customers to smoke comfortably outdoors. But he noted that, in the weeks around the ban, urban management officials were regularly disrupting bars and restaurants without the right permits for sidewalk seating. Many in the hospitality trade have been long suffering since austerity measures drove a slump in business and fear further restrictions could worsen their fortunes.

National leaders’ support for tobacco control has long clashed with provincial authorities’ need to consider tobacco’s importance to the local economies they represent. The tension has resulted in some bizarrely conflicted governmental compromises. In January 2006, when China agreed to a World Health Organization framework for eliminating smoking in public, it included the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA) — which oversees the sales, quotas, and costs of all official tobacco products in China — in the group assigned to examine strategy and offer guidance on its regulation. With some 300 million customers, the STMA is effectively the world’s most powerful tobacco company. Its tens of billions worth of U.S. dollars in taxes are significant to the Chinese economy; in May 2009, authorities in one country in the central province of Hubei famously demanded that their employees smoke an annual quota of locally produced cartons, with fines for going off-brand, just to juice revenues.

Yang Gonghuan, a former deputy director general for the Chinese Center for Disease Control, told state-run online outlet The Paper that the STMA poses “the biggest obstacle to China’s tobacco control.” Yang described Chinese cigarette packs as “the least scary in the world,” and blamed the monopoly for issuing a temporary regulation in 2008 that prevented health warnings from appearing on shelves. “If the people knew about the real danger of smoking, they’d stop,” Yang claimed. That’s starting to happen; 55.8 percent of a sample of Beijing’s four million smokers say they plan to quit, according to a recent poll by the government-run Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign Committee. Although some have rightfully complained that the new rule penalizes users while ignoring abuses by the industry itself, vested interests like the STMA may matter less if there exists a common will to make the ban work.

Smoking may eventually come to be viewed as an oddly indulgent habit in a city whose air is already persistently hostile to one’s health. Indeed, an unusual spate of recent thunderstorms, coupled with low winds, has left a spectral gloom over the city this summer, a reminder of greater problems yet to be resolved. In this clammy atmosphere, young commuters, lining up at bus stops, seem to cough, hawk, and grumble like terminal smokers. The capital may be ready to finally give up its favorite bad habit, but it has plenty of others still to kick.

Getty Images AsiaPac

Robert Foyle Hunwick is a media consultant and editor at large for BeijingCream.com.

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