As of May 1, 2008, stricter anti-smoking regulations went into effect around Beijing in accordance with international treaties that guarantee a smoke-free Olympics. In 1995 and 1996 the local people's congress established the first set of laws against smoking in public places around Beijing, with the May laws acting as more developed implementation regulations. When asked, my Chinese colleagues told me that smoking on buses has been banned much longer than 1995 and trains require smokers to stand in areas between cars so they do not disturb other passengers.
Unfortunately, I'm not finding these rules, old or new, to be strictly enforced. During the May holidays I traveled overnight by train, first class no less, to Inner Mongolia to visit old friends. My cabin mates were all solid male citizens, dressed in nice suits. They seemed polite and confident, excellent, upright-wage earners who treated me with decorum and respect. Except, unfortunately, regarding the smoking laws. Two of the three men nonchalantly stepped outside the compartment after the train left the station and lit up, despite the soft-voiced protests of the elegant young train conductress. They watched the landscape speeding by while I inhaled the second hand smoke that wafted through the walls, permeating the cabin, my hair, my clothes and my already congested lungs.
Indeed, as of 2007, China had 350 million smokers according to Bloomberg news, with the vast majority being men. That's more than the entire population of Germany, Japan and Russia. Moreover, the Chinese consume a third of the global tobacco resources, with a fifth of the world's population: That's a lot of money in tobacco tax, $31 billion in 2005 to be exact.
Tobacco also provides jobs and growth, despite the negative social costs incurred by cancer, emphysema and related lung and organ illnesses. A 2007 Bloomberg news article estimated that the nicotine habit kills a million people a year on average and costs $5 billion a year in medical fees.
I grew up during an era when smoking was allowed everywhere: on airplanes, buses and in all public places. It took me years to understand that my motion sickness wasn't due to motion: It was the second hand smoke that made me nauseous and constantly reaching for those awful paper bags in front of my seat. Now, thankfully even though the United States has no federal smoking ban, 19 states, including my home state, prohibit it in restaurants and 15 states ban smoking in the workplace. No airplane, bus or public conveyance allows passengers to smoke.
Because of the crowds, I had to return to Beijing by sleeper bus; train tickets were utterly sold out. "You'll be fine, it's cheaper and you can lie down and sleep," Yang, my dear friend, said as we parted. I snuggled up into my coffin-like space right at the front and eagerly waited for the journey to begin. The driver grinned at me, counted heads and closed the door; we were off. Then he and three other men lit up their cigarettes and smoked the entire journey. My only positive thought as I writhed in agony was the fact that I hadn't had any dinner because I'd been too busy to eat. Otherwise my sleepless trip would have been even more unpleasant for not just me but my bedmates as well.
When we arrived in Xizhimen in downtown Beijing, I exited as fast as I could, feeling faint and angry. My clothes stunk and my sinuses ached. Flagging down a cab and jumping in, the driver turned to me. "Good morning," he said. "Want a smoke?"
"No!" I shouted. "Put that cigarette out, it says right here on your dashboard: smoking in cabs is strictly prohibited as of October 2007."
"Ok, ok," he replied. "I was just trying to be friendly, take it easy."
Sometimes Chinese culture really dismays me. Male drivers smoke because it's part of the culture. Men give each other cigarettes as gifts. Little boys start smoking to emulate the men. Whether or not the new anti-smoking regulations will continue after the Olympics is debatable, but the real question in my mind is whether or not the Chinese will take seriously the effects of smoke, first and second hand, on the population. Smoking is definitely an addiction, but it can be overcome.
The author is an American working in Beijing