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May 30, 2015

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Beijing slaps a new ban on smokers

BEIJING is seeking to snuff out smoking in indoor public places from Monday with a new ban, unprecedented fines and a hotline to report offenders.

The legislation makes smoking in offices, restaurants, hotels and hospitals punishable by fines.

Businesses that fail to rein in smoking can be fined up to 10,000 yuan (US$1,600) and repeat offenders could lose their license.

Individual smokers can be fined 200 yuan.

The law also prohibits lighting up in some open-air areas close to schools, hospitals, and sports venues.

However, experts and city residents are questioning whether enforcement will be effective.

Health commission inspectors will be in charge, carrying out spot-checks and acting on tipoffs from the public. Posters in the capital advertise a hotline number, and the city government has launched a social media account for images of smokers caught in the act.

It has also announced a poll for a hand gesture aimed at encouraging people not to smoke, with options of a “time-out” T shape using two fingers to a palm, a forward-facing “stop” palm, and a flat hand pressed up to the nose of the person signalling.

Enforcement could be an uphill battle in China, where the World Health Organization estimates say that nearly 53 percent of men are smokers, one of the highest rates in the world.

“The Beijing law is at the forefront of what we think is the right thing to do,” said Bernhard Schwartlaender, the WHO’s representative in China.

He praised the penalties as “hefty” and a “quantum leap forward on tobacco control,” but added that previous anti-smoking laws had been poorly enforced.

“Let’s wait and see. We don’t expect it will be entirely smooth running.”

Environmental and safety laws in China are often openly flouted because of limited official oversight, or corruption in the form of bribes to law enforcers.

Cheap cigarettes

Cigarettes remain cheap, with packs often costing less than 10 yuan, and Chinese experts are also cautious.

Yang Gonghuan, former vice-director of China’s center for disease control, told reporters: “It is unrealistic to absolutely abolish ‘indoor smoking’ since too many people smoke.”

She added: “The key point is whether there is supervision.”

At his restaurant in the capital, chef Li Tiecheng was taking a smoke break on the pavement outside — while customers of nearby establishments puffed away at their tables.

“I don’t think you can just rely on policy,” he said of the law. “It’s a matter of education.”

One barrier to imposing similar measures nationwide is the clout of China’s state-run tobacco industry, which provides the government with huge amounts of money — 911 billion yuan in taxes and profits last year.

China’s tobacco regulator shares offices and senior officials with the China National Tobacco Corp — a near-monopoly and by far the world’s biggest cigarette producer.

Angela Pratt, technical officer of WHO China’s Tobacco Free Initiative, said the resulting conflict of interest was acute. “It’s like the health minister turning up to discuss tobacco legislation, and the meeting is chaired by Philip Morris,” she said.


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