LAWMAKERS in an east China city poised to vote today on the country’s toughest law to ban smoking in offices, restaurants, bars and all indoor public places.
The Regulation on the Control of Harm Posed by Second-hand Smoke, if passed by the legislature of Nanchang City, Jiangxi Province, will be the strictest of its kind in a country with the world’s largest number of smokers and a deep-rooted smoking culture.
The draft regulation had been shelved for months because it proved too controversial.
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. The statistics are collected by the Chinese Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (China CDC).
More than 300 million Chinese adults smoke. There are also millions of teen smokers.
“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.
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 January 1, 2013. Wet markets are also included.
Owners or managers of indoor venues will be fined up to 5,000 yuan (US$758) 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.
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 faces 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.”
Hotel managers, restaurant and bar owners, who are included in the proposed ban, also expressed frustration.
“It is very difficult, if not impossible,” said Yang Liangyue, general manager of the Chundu Commercial Hotel. “How can I know if tenants are smoking in their rooms?”
“If ashtrays are not offered, the risk of fire is high because tenants who insist on smoking will simply throw cigarette butts everywhere in their rooms,” Yang said.
Tao Chunsheng, a local police officer, said gathering evidence for violations would be difficult as smokers were likely to finish their cigarettes before police acting on a report could arrive.
Huang said he was “not surprised” at the opposition to the legislation in July, considering the general public and lawmakers showed little enthusiasm for enacting such an advanced tobacco control regulation.
About 30 percent of Nanchang’s 4.64 million permanent residents are smokers. The city’s health bureau estimates that half of the population is exposed to second-hand smoke.
As in every other Chinese city, puffing a cigarette in public is normal in Nanchang and a recognized social activity among men. High-quality cigarettes are popular as gifts. A pack of top-rated Chunghwa cigarettes is almost obligatory if a man is meeting his intended bride’s family for the first time.
A survey conducted by China CDC this year showed more than half of 4,200 people in seven second-tier Chinese cities said their employers treated guests with cigarettes in the past year.
“In general, people are not well informed of the specific harms of smoking and second-hand smoke. This is true everywhere, but especially in China,” Dr. Sarah England, a technical officer on tobacco control with the World Health Organization’s China Representative Office, told Xinhua in an interview in November.
“We need to ‘denormalize’ smoking and to eliminate any kind of social encouragement to smoke,” she said.
China ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003, pledging measures to effectively curb tobacco use, including smoke-free legislation, large and clear warnings on the harmful effects of tobacco on cigarette packs, total bans on all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, among others.
But implementation has been slow as the government placed the work group overseeing treaty’s implementation in the hands of people with close ties to the tobacco industry, China CDC’s deputy director Yang Gonghuan and other health experts have said.
The work group, led by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, includes many officials from the State Tobacco Monopoly which shares the management group with China National Tobacco Corp, one of the world’s biggest cigarette producers.
Taxes levied on the tobacco industry account for more than 7 percent of the nation’s total tax income. In Nanchang, the tobacco industry’s contribution to the tax income accounts for roughly 8 percent.
But economic and health experts say the costs arising from China’s tobacco use cannot be overlooked. Smoking causes a million deaths and millions of illnesses every year, cutting productivity of the work-force and putting a heavy burden on the country’s health care system.
This burden is growing as the government rolls out its nationwide health insurance reform.
By Xu Lingui and Shen Yang