Green Games help smoking ban
By Huang Qing
Updated: 2007-04-28 07:06

The 2008 Beijing Olympics is changing China and many attitudes held by Chinese people.

While massive construction is transforming the physical appearance of the capital, people's lifestyles are also experiencing changes.

One of the changes I am happy to see is to stop people smoking, or at least to stop people smoking in public places.

On Wednesday, Beijing announced a ban on smoking in contracted hotels, the Olympic village and tourist sites' restaurants from June next year.

Beijing's catering industry has also launched a campaign to control smoking in restaurants and eateries, demanding special areas be set aside for smokers.

If it were not for the Beijing Olympics, I do not think the campaign would have been launched at all. Now the campaign is up and running, and I wish it every success.

As a matter of fact, last February, Beijing health bureau proposed that restaurants should be smoke-free if possible, or at least manage to have no-smoking areas.

About 40,000 Beijing restaurants received the proposal. However, only a few replied.

A month later, Beijing Catering Industry Association again proposed that big restaurants should lead efforts to stop smoking in public places.

Again, the majority of restaurants chose not to respond.

Among the few restaurants that did respond, 52 per cent said banning smoking would harm their business.

In China, trying to stop smoking in public places is a mission impossible, according to some experts.

In 1996, Beijing issued a decree banning smoking in public places such as primary and middle schools, hospitals, shops, cinemas, public transport and meeting rooms, but not in restaurants.

Perhaps the Chinese saying, "a cigarette after a meal is better than a celestial being", can help explain why restaurants were not regarded as such "public places".

Many Chinese people think it is perfectly normal that diners should be allowed so smoke in crowded restaurants.

Indeed, the habit of smoking is deeply rooted in Chinese society. Offering guests a cigarette is considered courteous. Even at wedding banquets, brides have to light cigarettes for guests as part of the ritual.

However, I always feel offended when surrounded by smokers in restaurants. I always protest and stop those trying to smoke, despite their protests that late leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping both smoked.

More than half of Beijing's working places allow smoking, while the other half allows smoking in designated places.

What makes matter worse is that there are government and Party officials, including the health minister, who smoke. To many they are role models. Of course there are other role models, on or off screen, who also smoke, sending a clear message that successful people smoke.

In addition, it is estimated that about 100 million Chinese, farmers included, depend on the tobacco industry.

Since the government has monopoly control of the tobacco industry, it pursues optimum profits.

In 2005, it is reported that the industry contributed taxes totalling US$30 billion, about 7.6 per cent of the nation's total income.

There is no sign that the government will give up its monopoly. This is for two reasons: the huge tax income and huge job opportunities.

Although China has joined the framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the government's conflicting roles to control tobacco as the commitment of the government on one hand, and as the monopoly producer and seller of tobacco on the other have turned China into a "superpower" in terms of tobacco consumption.

It is estimated China has 350 million smokers. Among males aged 15 and above, 66 per cent smoke.

More worrisome is the fact that smokers are getting younger. In 1984, the average age of first-time smokers was 22.4. In 2002 the age was 19.7.

China Central Television reported that 40 per cent of smokers confessed in an online survey that they had smoked in public places where smoking is prohibited.

No wonder some Westerners claim that China, compared to their home countries, is a "smoke-friendly nation".

This "friendly" environment has diminished anti-smoking efforts.

Now that the 2008 Olympics is approaching, China's commitment to hosting a "green" Games should help anti-smoking efforts.

If previous efforts have failed, this time, with Olympic power, I hope that the effort will succeed.

I base my hope on the Chinese people's will to do their best for the Olympics even at the expense of sacrificing their personal habits and lifestyle.

I also base my hope on the Chinese government's commitment to hosting a successful green Olympic Games.

Email: qhuang@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 04/28/2007 page4)