NANCHANG - Local legislators in an East China city have watered down a smoking ban previously touted as China's toughest, reflecting the tremendous challenges tobacco control efforts face in China, the country with the largest number of smokers.
Lawmakers in Nanchang City, Jiangxi Province, met Friday to resume deliberations and vote on the controversial bill concerning second-hand smoke. But the vote was postponed.
"Voting was postponed because lawmakers disagreed," said Xu Yongli, an official with the Municipal People's Congress in Nanchang. "It has not been decided when the draft will be voted on."
The revised draft eases the smoking ban in office buildings to include only "public areas" and delays the implementation of a total ban in ticket offices and waiting lounges from 2011 to 2015. Moreover, the ban on smoking in restaurants, bars and entertainment venues is delayed until 2015 from the original 2013.
Chen Huilin, a senior municipal lawmaker in charge of drafting, said the regulation was revised to make implementation easier.
The regulation was previously trumpeted as China's toughest smoking ban because it completely banned smoking in government offices, restaurants, bars, and other entertainment venues -- a first for a Chinese city.
Experts have blasted the revisions.
Yang Jie, a tobacco control officer with Chinese Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), said the watering down of the regulation "seriously violates" authorities' tobacco-control commitments.
China ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003, pledging measures to effectively curb tobacco consumption.
Health experts argue that "smoke-free" means no smoking at anywhere inside and only in designated smoking areas outside.
A partial ban on smoking indoors -- by setting up "smoking areas," for example -- does not fully protect non-smokers from the potentially harmful effects of cigarette smoke.
"How do we define 'public areas' in office buildings? What about toilets and corridors? The provision results in only a partial smoking ban," said Yu Xiuyan, a public health researcher at the China University of Political Science and Law.
China has no comprehensive tobacco-control law at the national-level. It largely relies on local legislation to create "smoke-free" environments.
"Government officials should take the lead and fulfill the country's tobacco-control promise," Yu said. "Even without legislation, smoking should not be allowed in government office buildings."
The legislation first appeared in July and was vigorously opposed. Some called it "unrealistic" goal for a second-tier city.
About 30 percent of Nanchang's 4.64 million permanent residents are smokers. The city's health bureau estimates that half of the city's population is exposed to second-hand smoke.
China is home to over 300 million smokers. About 740 million people are exposed to second-hand smoke, according to China CDC estimates.
Smoking a cigarette in public in Nanchang is normal, as it is in other Chinese cities.
Economic and health experts say the cost of smoking in China is alarming: it causes one million deaths and injury to millions of others every year. It also cuts into workforce productivity and burdens the nation's health care system.