Ban would be breath of fresh air

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"Light up, and 100 yuan may go up in smoke." That was the headline of a story in China Daily last month that told how Beijing city hopes to increase the fine from 10 yuan to 100 yuan for anyone caught flouting the no-smoking ban in some buildings.

And corporations that break the law would then also face a 10-fold increase in fines, which would range from 10,000 to 50,000 yuan.

That should be great news for the non-smokers of Beijing, but I'm not too sure about that. It would be, if the authorities would strictly enforce the ban and hit the smokers where their hip pockets are concerned.

True, the Beijing Health Inspection Department, which is tasked with enforcing the ban, has more than 1,200 no-smoking enforcers. But many offenders are just told not to smoke, and the 10 yuan fine is ignored.

If that's the accepted practice, would higher fines have any effect? Won't enforcers continue to just warn the smokers and won't the smokers merrily nod, put out the fag, wait until the enforcer is out of sight - and then light up again?

After all, local media reports say no fine has yet been issued by the department since Beijing introduced its no-smoking regulations two years ago.

Just dine at one of Beijing's thousands of restaurants displaying the no-smoking sign to see what I mean. At most places, a diner or three would smoke - and no staff member would come and tell them to butt out.

Indeed, I've seen a diner light up while chatting to a restaurant manager and nothing was said about the burning weed, despite the restaurant's no-smoking signs.

And while a table may not have ashtrays, ask for one and it will magically appear from some drawer. A simple question: why are there ashtrays in a no-smoking restaurant?

Fortunately for non-smokers, there appears to be some hope on the cloudy horizon.

International hotels and some larger restaurants are leading the way in trying to get their patrons to comply with the law.

The Great Wall Sheraton Hotel, for example, like many others in the city, has banned smoking from its public areas and set aside specific areas for puffers. And staff members are not backward in coming forward to remind diners of this.

Jesselyn Koh, the acting general manager of the hotel, said if someone were to light up in its no-smoking areas, he or she would be politely told about its special smoking areas and be asked to move there.

And the hotel hasn't had any problems with guests refusing to either move, or to put their cigarettes out, Koh said.

Similarly, at the Raffles Beijing Hotel, errant guests, especially at the exclusive Gaan French restaurant, will be politely told to put out their cigarettes. "And we've had no problems in this regard," said Ivy Li, the hotel's public relations director.

For smokers, the hotel also has special smoking areas, Li said.

But it's a long and windy road ahead to get proper smoke-free areas in the city. After all, research shows the smoking rate among Beijingers is above the national average.

A recent survey, conducted by the Beijing health bureau from January to last month, found that 60.2 percent of men smoked, compared to the national average of 57.4. It found that 4.8 percent of Beijing women smoked as against the national figure of 2.6 percent.

Of greater concern is the fact that one in three doctors in Beijing are smokers. Last month, China Daily reported that the Ministry of Health is aiming to make all hospitals and health centers smoke-free by the end of this year.

And not all medicos appear to be solidly behind an anti-smoking campaign, as they should be.

"To give up smoking is to be isolated from society,"

said a doctor who has been smoking for more than 40 years.

Naturally, the anti-smoking brigade has its opponents, many of whom will cite the importance of the industry to the economy and tax revenue, and of course tobacco farmers.

But the response to the country's leadership and public has to be this: smoking-related losses from medical bills, sick leave and fires account for China's GDP, said Wu Yiqun, the deputy director of the Beijing-based NGO Think Tank Research Center for Health Development.

Worse, said Wu recently, if the rising trend of smokers continues, one in three Chinese men will die early from tobacco-related diseases.

Wu and her colleagues have had some success in their anti-smoking campaign. For example, they succeeded in persuading organizers of Shanghai Expo 2010 and China's national games to return all sponsorship fees from tobacco companies.

But this is only a tiny breath of clean air in the gigantic cloud of tobacco smoke that hangs over China and the world. World Health Organization figures show there are at least 1 billion smokers in the world, with 80 percent in low- and middle-income countries.

More than 5.4 million people die from smoke-related illnesses every year, and half of all children breathe air polluted by tobacco.

So, if a 100-yuan fine can play its part in reducing these deaths and the number of smokers, it should be welcome. But only if Beijing comes to the party and starts enforcing the ban - and fine.

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