Message on smoking law must be obeyed or pay

By Alexandre Lesto
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, January 13, 2011
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On the 31st of May, 2006, smoking in all public places was banned in Montreal, Canada, where I was living at the time. Though I was not a smoker, almost all of my friends were; and I remember thinking that there was no way the new law could be enforced. How could anyone imagine a bar without cigarette smoke? It was preposterous...

And yet, somehow, it worked. People, overnight, adapted to the new law, forsaking the habits of a lifetime. Fast-forward to 2011, and here we are, in China, with the same no-smoking rules being implemented. Or, therein lies the problem, since, so far, there has only been a feeble attempt to enforce the law.

In 2003, China signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, pledging to eradicate smoking in public places by January 2011. But with 2011 having come to pass, we find ourselves with very little to show for it. In bars, KTVs, banks, restaurants, schools and even hospitals, I still see people smoking.

How to explain this gap between the law on paper and reality? The first, obvious culprits are the authorities responsible for enforcing the laws. "If you're going to set down rules and edicts, back them up with action," a friend from Peking University told me.

Fair enough; words need to be backed up by action. It may be that the local authorities have not employed the necessary means to enforce the law. But health departments have a responsibility to give people the means to live comfortable, safe lives. If increased supervision and punitive measures are the cure, let us ask for a higher dosage.

But let's not be fooled by an easy target, nor led to believe that only one remedy exists for this social problem. While fines and controls were effective deterrents to the Montreal smokers, there was more at play. Pictures on cigarette packs displayed gruesome images of blackened lungs; public advertisements on television and notices in newspapers conveyed the same message. The public information campaign was so effective that one could not contemplate lighting up in a public place today for fear of being reprimanded by any or all around.

The solution lies therefore in a marketing crusade against the risks and dangers of smoking. The goal would be to sensitize people to the risks they incur as second-hand smokers, which, combined to an increased awareness of the new law, would encourage them to object when faced with a clear disregard for both the law and their health.

Though China's culture is very different from Canada's, it cannot account for the polar opposite results of implementing an identical law; people's concern for their personal welfare is universal. More punitive measures and systematic enforcement, in conjunction with aggressive public health advertisements, would encourage people to stand up for their rights against the smokers.

The author is a French-American, currently living and working in Beijing.

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