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Smoking issue wafts at Great Hall of People

By SHAN JUAN | China Daily | Updated: 2013-03-05 02:17

To smoke or not to smoke? That remains a question at the annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a forum of China's elites.

On Sunday afternoon at the gate of the Great Hall of the People, where the CPPCC annual session opened, I saw more than 10 CPPCC members in succession smoking.

Swirling smoke occasionally blurred the entrance into the great building where, ironically, China's top legislature approved the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005.

Yet although it is the place where China pledged to take measures to curb tobacco use, eight years later the nation's elite, those who influence and decide the country's future, still feel free to smoke there.

"Personally, I just feel awkward in such a smoky scene, and here I call on all CPPCC members to take the lead in quitting smoking," Beijing health chief Fang Laiying, a CPPCC member, said at the first group discussion of the CPPCC sessions.

Wang Guoqiang, vice-minister of health and a CPPCC member as well, suggested a "clear-up campaign" starting around the Great Hall of the People.

"Ashtrays within and at the gate of the hall should be removed at least," he said.

During my three years' experience covering the two sessions, I saw many proposals to fight smoking, and quite a lot were from female members or deputies.

One complaint still resonates in my mind.

"Occasionally I meet some (CPPCC member) smoking at the dining table simply ignoring my frowns," she said.

Improvements, however, have been seen, and some smoking members have begun to sign proposals for strict bans in public places.

China has more than 300 million smokers, with more than half of adult males lighting up.

Of the 2,237 CPPCC members, more than 80 percent this year are male and have an average age of 56.1.

Also, they are powerful people and can easily get pricey brand-name cigarettes as gifts, so it's reasonably hard for them to quit, according to Wu Yiqun, deputy director of the Think Tank Research Center for Health Development, a Beijing-based NGO committed to tobacco control.

Besides, people under great work pressure tend to smoke to relax, and patience and time are needed to combat smoking, said Vice-Minister of Health Huang Jiefu.

"I think the key task now is to protect non-smokers from passive smoke, particularly at public places," said Huang, who is also head of the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control.

Still, even after persuading myself that his step-by-step approach was the most practical one, I saw a CPPCC member wandering in the hotel lobby smoking a cigarette — despite the no-smoking signs not far from him.

Quickly, I took out my mobile phone and snapped a shot of him, though on second thought I held back the idea of posting the photo on a micro blog.

But I still insist that the question "to smoke or not to smoke?" should no longer be asked, at least at the venues of the two sessions.

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