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UPDATED: June 22, 2015 NO. 26 JUNE 25, 2015
A Burning Issue
Beijing expects to curb a long-unsolved problem through the toughest-ever smoking ban
By Yin Pumin

A giant no-smoking banner is displayed on the iconic National Stadium in Beijing, also known as the Bird's Nest, on June 1 (XINHUA)

The city of Beijing showed its determination to make public places no-smoking zones by adopting a new tobacco control regulation on June 1.

According to the regulation, smoking is prohibited in all indoor public places, workplaces and public transport vehicles, as well as in open-air places such as kindergartens, primary and middle schools, child welfare institutions, women's and children's hospitals, fitness and sports venues, and cultural relic protection sites that are open to the public.

Meanwhile, venders are forbidden to sell cigarettes within 100 meters of kindergartens, primary and middle schools, and children's activity centers. Such institutions are required to help students quit smoking and educate them about the harm of smoking.

In addition, all types of tobacco business promotion events are prohibited and tobacco advertisements are not allowed to appear outdoors, in public places and on public transport, as well as in media including radio, TV, films, newspapers, books, and the Internet.

Public organizations that fail to impose the ban will be fined up to 10,000 yuan ($1,631) and individual violators face a 200-yuan ($32.63) penalty, according to the regulation.

The WHO recognized Beijing's efforts on May 31, this year's World No Tobacco Day.

According to the WHO, Beijing's regulation is compliant with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), and when fully implemented, will have a major impact on the health of Beijing's residents.

Beijing is home to about 4.2 million smokers, accounting for 23.4 percent of people aged 15 and above. They smoke an average of 14.6 cigarettes per day, according to a survey conducted by the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control in 2014.

The Beijing Government is training several thousand inspectors who will be responsible for inspecting venues and issuing fines, and thousands of community volunteers will also be mobilized to support enforcement, according to the WHO China Country Office.

"The Beijing regulation is among the toughest of its kind in China. The move reaffirms the country's anti-smoking determination," said Yang Gonghuan, Deputy Director of the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control.

In November last year, China's first state-level anti-smoking legislation was published for public consultation. The draft regulation intends to ban indoor smoking, limit outdoor smoking and end tobacco advertising.

A tough task

Although facing the China's toughest-ever smoking ban, many smokers and organizations in the capital still nonetheless failed to comply with the regulation in the first week of its implementation.

Restaurants were the biggest culprits, with the highest rate of violations. Around 60 percent of the inspected eateries had not enforced the smoking ban on their premises in early June.

A restaurant manager surnamed Lin in Beijing's Chaoyang District told Beijing Review that he preferred leaving smokers alone when eating lunch or dinner in his restaurant in the first few days after the new smoking ban because he didn't know how to stop them.

But following a fine and explanations from the inspectors, Lin's staff members are determined to forbid its guests smoking. "Now our waiters and waitresses are ready to stop those smokers at any time," Lin said.

Zhang Jianshu, President of the Beijing Association on Tobacco Control, said it would be more difficult to enforce the regulation in some areas where smoking is prevalent, such as nightclubs.

"The key lies with business owners. They have the responsibility to ensure no smoking takes place within their establishments," Zhang said.

Meanwhile, 15 hospitals in Beijing, including Tiantan Hospital, Xuanwu Hospital and other major medical institutions, have also received warnings.

Waitresses take away smoking ashtrays at a restaurant in Beijing on June 1 (XINHUA)

In fact, Beijing has had smoking bans in place since as far back as the 1990s, and stepped up the campaign prior to the 2008 Olympics, but the bans were largely ceremonial in nature.

"The problem lies in the authorities' weak enforcement of the regulations and the public's weak awareness of the harm brought about by smoking," said Liu Zejun, Director of the Beijing Patriotic Public Health Campaign Committee.

According to him, Beijing has fewer than 1,000 law-enforcement personnel to impose the bans on more than 4 million smokers.

Wu Yiqun, Executive Deputy Director of ThinkTank, a Beijing-based anti-smoking advocacy group, said that effective implementation of the regulations should be based on solid public support.

It is important for the government to heighten public awareness of the harm of smoking and invite the public to supervise the law enforcement activities, he said.

As for easy access to cigarettes, a survey conducted by the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control from April to May found that some 16.3 percent of middle school students in Beijing are smokers and more than 30 percent of the city's middle schools have cigarette vendors located around campuses.

According to a recent study by Peking University, the average age when youths begin to smoke in China has dropped to 10.7 years old. In Beijing, teenagers begin smoking at an average age of 12-13.

China signed the WHO FCTC in 2003, which went into effect in 2006. According to the FCTC, China should have banned smoking in indoor public areas completely by 2011.

Up until now, however, the situation in China has been grim. According to the Chinese Center for Disease Prevention and Control, China has more than 300 million smokers and another 740 million people exposed to second-hand smoke each year. Nearly 1.4 million people die each year owing to smoking-related diseases, more than those caused by AIDS, tuberculosis and traffic accidents combined.

Meanwhile, as the world's largest tobacco producer, China's cigarette production increased 39 percent in the past 11 years since 2004. In that time, it made 25 trillion cigarettes, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China.

At the same time, tobacco sales have also been on the rise. More than 50.99 million cartons of cigarettes were sold in China in 2014, a 37-percent rise from a year earlier.

On the other hand, only 13 cities, among them Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou, have implemented local administrative regulations banning smoking in indoor public venues since 2008.

Increasing tax

On May 8, China raised its wholesale tobacco excise tax from 5 percent to 11 percent, the first increase of the tax in six years.

The FCTC also recognizes that pricing and taxation are effective tools in reducing smoking across the population, especially teenagers.

According to a report by Xinhua News Agency, data from local price monitoring departments across the country show the tax rise has largely been passed on to consumers. Cigarettes priced under 20 yuan ($3.26) per package have seen a price hike of 0.5-1 yuan ($0.08-0.16). Those priced above 20 yuan have generally been subject to a price rise of around 2 yuan ($0.33) per package.

Wang Hongliang, an owner of a cigarette store in Beijing's Shunyi District, said that most of the cigarettes in his store have increased 1-2 yuan per package in price. "But my business is not affected," Wang said.

Since the launch of the cigarette taxation system in 1994, China has adjusted the tax rate in 1998, 2001 and 2009. Experts believe that this is the first time taxes have been raised as part of the country's anti-smoking efforts.

Yang said the 2009 tax hike was focused on imports and production so it was not passed on to the retail price. However, this year's wholesale tax rise will directly affect consumers.

Zheng Rong, a professor at the Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics, said that prices for some cigarettes have remained unchanged because of large inventory. "It is likely that cigarettes whose prices have not increased for the time being will see their prices grow in the near future," she said.

While the experts and industry insiders express their optimism about the function of the tax hiking in the smoking reduction efforts, many young smokers say they will not abandon their smoking habits owing to a slight price rise. Meanwhile, many other smokers say that they will choose cheaper cigarettes if the price increase of the ones they smoked exceeds their budgets.

According to Yang, the large price gaps between different brands pose an obstacle for tobacco control, since cheap cigarettes have seen only minimal price hikes and remain affordable for even the poorest consumers.

In China, the cheapest cigarettes are around 2 yuan per package, while high-end ones cost more than 100 yuan ($16.31).

Zheng said the influence of the price rise may seem limited for now, since those who are addicted to cigarettes won't easily quit. However, in the long run, anticipation of rising prices may deter those who are infrequent smokers or thinking about starting.

However, Zhang Guodong, a columnist for economic news portal www.ce.cn, believes that the rising retail prices of cigarettes will have a limited deterrent effect on chain smokers.

"Despite rising cigarette tax and price, it is even more important for the local governments to cut the scale of the tobacco industry and reduce their dependence on tobacco companies for revenue," Zhang told Xinhua.

Effect of media and ads

On May 13, Gone With the Bullets, a blockbuster film directed by Chinese director Jiang Wen, was awarded a badge of shame for excessive depiction of smoking.

The Chinese Association on Tobacco Control announced the Dirty Ashtray Award as it disclosed the results for an annual review of smoking scenes in films and television series.

According to the association, the film has 45 smoking scenes, the highest of all the films reviewed, with the act being depicted on average once every 3.1 minutes.

Smoking scenes also appear with high frequency in TV series, with 70 percent of the 30 most popular TV series broadcast last year containing such scenes.

The association has been monitoring smoking scenes in popular films and TV series in China since 2007 to encourage celebrities to undertake more responsibility in minimizing the number of smoking scenes in their works so as to prevent the minors from mimicking what they see onscreen.

In November last year, the National Health and Family Planning Commission also proposed in a draft on Regulations on Smoking in Public a fine of up to 30,000 yuan ($4,894) for showing smoking scenes in TV programs and films.

According to the draft, all cigarette brands and cigarette ads are to be banned from appearing in films, TV shows, and all other TV programs. Smoking scenes in no-smoking areas will be forbidden in movies. The portrayal of juveniles either buying or smoking cigarettes in film or on TV productions will be prohibited, as will as depicting smoking if teenagers are present in the scene.

Apart from the satirically themed awards and the proposed draft, China's top legislature adopted an amendment to the 21-year-old Advertisement Law in April, banning tobacco advertising on mass media, in public places, public vehicles and outdoors.

Ads for other products or services should also not include tobacco products, their packaging or trademarks, the amendment added.

"The amendment is a progress compared to the current law, but it still has some vague content," said Wang Fei, Director of the Research Center for Modern Advertising at Renmin University of China.

One of the ambiguous items to which Wang referred is the definition of "public places." Many experts have expressed their concerns on whether or not retail stores can be defined as such.

Angela Pratt, a project leader of WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative in China, said advertising, if allowed in retail settings, will constitute a form of deliberate advertising to young people.

"Shops are obviously a public place that anyone can walk into. Any reasonable definition of 'public place' must include retail settings," she said.

According to the China Association on Tobacco Control, there were 5.42 million licensed tobacco retailers in China by the end of 2012.

After many years of efforts to fight smoking, tobacco consumption is still on the rise in China, and ads still exist in different forms, said Yu Xiuyan, a research fellow with China University of Political Science and Law. "I strongly urge legislators to ban all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship," she said. "With loopholes, our gap with some advanced countries in tobacco control will get bigger."

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to yinpumin@bjreview.com

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