City mulls toughest smoking regulation

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Lawmakers in an east China city are close to voting on the country's toughest law to ban smoking in offices, restaurants, bars and all indoor public places, officials said Wednesday, months after the draft was shelved because it proved too controversial.

The Regulation on the Control of Harm Posed by Second-hand Smoke, if passed by the legislature of Nanchang City on Friday, will be the strictest of its kind in a country with the world's largest number of smokers and a deep-rooted smoking culture.

Public health experts say the legislation is "pivotal" in the tobacco-control crusade and may jump-start a nationwide campaign to provide comprehensive protection for an estimated 740 million people who are exposed to second-hand smoke, according to statistics collected by Chinese Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (China CDC).

"We plan to resume deliberating, and hopefully to pass the bill on Friday," said Xu Yongli, an official with the Municipal People's Congress of Nanchang, in Jiangxi Province.

The draft regulation requires a total ban on smoking in 11 categories of public places, including offices, schools, medical institutes, public transport, malls, sports venues and Internet cafes once it is enacted.

The ban will be extended to hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, beauty salons, mahjong houses and other entertainment venues from Jan. 1, 2013. Wet markets are also included.

Owners or managers of indoor venues will be fined up to 5,000 yuan (758 U.S. dollars) if their premises are in violation of the ban, according to the draft. Individuals who light up in smoke-free areas will be fined 50 yuan.

Enforcement challenge

The bill came up against vigorous opposition in the city legislature during its first reading in July, with claims that it set "unrealistic" goals for a second-tier city and posed challenges in enforcement, said Chen Tianpeng, deputy director of Nanchang Municipal Health Bureau and a key promoter of the bill.

"This kind of comprehensive ban is unprecedented on the Chinese mainland," said Huang Jinrong, a Beijing-based lawyer who did extensive research on tobacco control legislation.

China had no comprehensive national-level tobacco control law, said Huang. It partially banned smoking in public venues, public transport, and government offices -- mostly relying on local legislation. This year the ministries of health and education imposed comprehensive smoke bans in hospitals and schools.

Health experts argue that "smoke-free" means no smoking at all anywhere inside, and outdoor smoking only in designated smoking areas. A partial ban on smoking indoors, such as setting up a "smoking area," is not effective to protect non-smokers as potentially harmful particles emitted from a burning cigarette can be carried to all corners of a building.

But like other smoking bans, Nanchang's legislation faced daunting challenges in its enforcement, Chen Tianpeng said.

The draft lists a dozen government agencies to be responsible for policing the proposed law, including the municipal bureau of health to watch over medical institutes, the food and drug bureau to oversee restaurants, and police to monitor hotels, cyber cafes, and beauty parlors.

Lawmakers worried the different agencies might not enforce the law consistently, Chen said.

"But a unified law enforcement team is impossible," Chen said. "The municipal government cannot afford to hire a large team of specialized smoke ban inspectors."

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