Experts say public compliance more important than punishment
An independent special taskforce will be established to conduct surprise checks at medical institutions, including hospitals and health administrations, across China this year to enforce the ban on smoking, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced on Monday.
The latest initiative came amid the country's ongoing battle against the use of tobacco, which claims 1 million Chinese lives every year.
The MOH aims to turn "at least half of the medical institutions nationwide" smoke-free before the end of the year, and include all of them by 2011.
"Those found guilty of dereliction of duty to implement the ban on smoking will be exposed in the media and punished either financially or administratively," Li Xinhua, Division Director for Health Promotion and Education with the MOH, said at a symposium organized by the Think Tank Research Center for Health Development, a grassroots anti-tobacco organization.
"The move is bound to prompt medical institutions to ensure a tobacco-free environment," Li said.
The MOH said medical institutions across the country are required to educate patients and staff about the effects of smoking, put up "no smoking" notices at key locations inside hospitals and establish inspection teams to ensure smoke-free indoor areas.
As the world's largest consumer of tobacco, with annual sales of 2 trillion cigarettes, China is home to more than 350 million smokers, about a third of the entire world's smokers, official statistics show.
However, more than 55 percent of doctors on the mainland smoke, a recent survey has found.
"Hospitals and doctors, who are looked up to for health and medical advice, should be the first to implement the ban on smoking," said Wang Ke'an, the think tank's director.
Given that the Chinese mainland has no legislation at the national level to prohibit smoking in public places, the ban means little when harsh punishment cannot be given to those who don't comply, experts said.
In Hong Hong, smoking in public places can mean a fine of HK$1,500 ($193), said P.Y. Lam, the organization's director of health.
However, he added that public compliance and cooperation to promote a tobacco-free future was "more important than the law or punishment".
"There will never be enough inspectors to convince a smoker that the habit is killing him and those around him," Lam said.
The latest move follows an announcement by seven cities that they would take the first steps in creating legislation on stopping smoking at public venues and workplaces.
Under the pilot project, jointly operated by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDCP) and the International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, the cities - Tianjin, Chongqing, Shenyang, Harbin, Nanchang, Lanzhou and Shenzhen - will implement a smoking ban in public and in workplaces.
Wang Yu, director of CCDCP and the project, said the program would create legislation to guarantee 100-percent smoke-free public venues and work places and implement a working mechanism to enforce the ban.
Apart from 1 million smoking-related deaths each year in China, passive smoking causes around 100,000 deaths annually in the country.
"In that regard, the project, if realized, would help save millions of lives through lowering tobacco consumption and reducing secondhand smoking," said Dr Sinead Jones with the International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.
"The project would be scaled up to cover the whole nation in the future to protect more people from smoking," said Wang.
Official statistics show smoking costs the nation more than 252 billion yuan ($37 billion) each year in medical costs, fire and environmental pollution, far beyond the tax revenue generated from the industry.