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The northeastern city of Harbin has banned indoor smoking in public areas just before World No Tobacco Day, but health experts say enacting and enforcing laws in China that are consistent with the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations is not easy.
A smoking man walks past by a smoking-ban billboard in a park in Zhengzhou, capital of middle China's Henan Province, May 3, 2011. [Xinhua]
The Regulations on the Control of Harm Posed by Second-hand Smoke, endorsed by the legislature of Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang Province, defines all public indoor areas as "public places," and outlines penalties for smokers who light up in such places.
Restaurants, schools and hospitals face penalties if people smoke on their premises, according to the regulations. Fines can range from 2,000 to 30,000 yuan (about 308 to 4,626 U.S. dollars). Also, businesses can be forced to close temporarily if they break the new law.
Wang Zhongmin, an official with Harbin's Office of Legislative Affairs, says the law is not designed to deprive people of their right to smoke but protect non-smokers from being harmed from inhaling second-hand smoke.
China has more than 300 million smokers, most of whom are males. About 740 million people, including 180 million children and teenagers, were exposed to second-hand smoke in 2010, according to a report recently published by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC).
The law is the country's first specifically designed to reduce the harms posed by second-hand smoke.
Besides Harbin, indoor smoking bans in the cities of Tianjin, Chongqing, Nanchang, Shenzhen and Shenyang are being discussed by the local legislatures.
But for a country where lighting a cigarette in public is common, the passing of tobacco-free legislation is no straight-forward process.
In Nanchang, capital city of eastern Jiangxi Province, the Draft Regulation on the Control of Harm Posed by Second-hand Smoke has been shelved after a second reading by Nanchang Municipal People's Congress last December, because the "toughest draft" completely banned smoking in many public places, including government offices, restaurants, bars, and other entertainment venues.
Lawmakers who oppose the law say that while it met the WHO's recommendations, it was too "tough" and "difficult to enforce" in China.
However, health experts argue that a partial ban on smoking indoors does not provide enough protection to non-smokers.
Yang Jie, a tobacco control officer with China CDC, says the watering down of the regulation reflects the tremendous challenges tobacco control efforts face in China.
China ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003, pledging to effectively curb tobacco use, including smoke-free legislation, placing large and clear warnings on the harmful effects of tobacco on cigarette packs, as well as total bans on all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.
But implementation has been slow as the government placed the work group overseeing the treaty's implementation into the hands of people with close ties to the tobacco industry, China CDC's deputy director, Yang Gonghuan and other health experts have said.
China promised to ban smoking in public places "in an all-around manner" in March this year in its 12th Five-Year Plan -- the first time that the country has included an anti-smoking measure in its five-year plan.
"It's a big decision. China's pace to curb anti-smoking has been rather slow, so the decision was not easy," says Yue Bingfei, a member with the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and a research fellow with the National Institute for the Control of Pharmaceutical and Biological Products.
According to the 2011 China Tobacco Control Report published by China CDC, more than 100 suggestions and proposals on tobacco-control were submitted by NPC representatives and CPPCC members during China's annual "two sessions."
In Tianjin, a port city bordering Beijing, the deputy mayor has signed a commitment on "Promoting A Smoke-free Environment" project, creating strict legislation to guarantee 100-percent smoke-free public venues and workplaces and figure out a feasible and forceful working mechanism to enforce the smoking ban from 2009 to 2011.
Jiang Guohong, director of Institute for Non-Communicable Disease Control under Tianjin CDC, says that compared to the existing local tobacco-control regulations of Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou, Tianjin's draft specifies that owners of venues catering to the public are primarily responsible for any violation.
The draft now is awaiting its first reading by Tianjin Municipal People's Congress.
"Since 2011, Chinese government, legislators and NGOs have largely had positive reactions to tobacco control," Yang Gonghuan says.
In January, a report entitled "Tobacco Control and China's Future" lamented the country's slow progress in tobacco control and lambasted the tobacco industry's interference for delaying efforts to meet the government's smoking reduction commitments.
The report, as a joint assessment by a group of Chinese and foreign health experts and economists, also disclosed that about 1.2 million Chinese die each year from tobacco-related illnesses and an estimated 3.5 million Chinese will die each year from tobacco-related illnesses by 2030.
In February, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) ordered film and TV studios to restrict smoking scenes and to ban shots showing tobacco brands or minors in scenes while others are smoking.
A revised regulation on health management in public places issued by the Ministry of Health in March has banned smoking in enclosed public locations since May 1.
Moreover, "Smoking Snapshot," a campaign that aims to ridicule smoking in hospitals and public health institutions, began on Thursday.
Initiated by the China CDC and the division of Health Promotion and Education with the MOH, the official campaign encourages netizens to upload photos of people smoking in hospitals and health institutions onto the microblog weibo.com.
Mao Qun'an, director with the Health Promotion and Education Department says the microblog campaign aims to urge the public to join in tobacco control efforts.
"Government policy is one thing, but not the only important part of tobacco control initiatives. Raising public awareness remains the key to succeed in tobacco control," Yang Gonghuan said