BEIJING — China launches a ban on smoking in indoor public spaces Sunday but the effort is widely viewed as vague and half-hearted and few expect it to have much of an impact in the tobacco-addicted country.
The nationwide prohibition is designed to bring China — which has more than 300 million smokers, roughly equal to the entire population of the United States — more in line with health regulations in developed countries.
But it faces a tough test.
Tobacco use is deeply ingrained in China, where offering a cigarette is a common greeting ritual. Lighting up in elevators or even hospital waiting rooms is routine and second-hand smoke is considered a serious health threat.
“I don’t think this ban on smoking will have a big effect,” Yang Lei, a 32-year-old Beijinger who has been smoking for four years, told AFP.
“In China, when you are in a restaurant, people smoke even if there is a ‘No Smoking’ sign. When you eat with friends, few people ask others if it’s OK to smoke and restaurant managers rarely stop clients who smoke.”
Many health experts have warned that China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco, faces a ticking health timebomb unless it curbs smoking, and the ban marks a significant move for the Chinese government.
“The Chinese ministry of health has taken an important step forward in their tobacco control efforts,” said Kelly Henning, head of public health initiatives, including tobacco control, at the US-based Bloomberg Foundation, which finances anti-smoking efforts worldwide.
But the nation’s commitment to the ban remains unclear.
Similar temporary bans were introduced during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and last year’s World Expo in Shanghai, but were rarely respected or enforced.
The specifics of the new nationwide ban are sketchy and vague.
The ministry of health guidelines say smoking will be banned in “indoor public spaces” and that cigarette vending machines cannot be located in public places.
However, state press reports have said offices and factories will not be covered by the ban, and it remains unclear whether it will be adequately enforced in bars, restaurants, and public transport.
Tobacco kills more than a million people each year in China, where some brands can be purchased for as little as three yuan (46 US cents). Chinese and foreign experts say the number of smoking deaths could triple by 2030.
Experts point to the state monopoly on the tobacco industry, which accounts for nearly a tenth of national tax revenue, as one of the biggest obstacles to anti-smoking efforts.
Beijing dragged its feet in adopting the ban — its takes effect four months after the expiration of a deadline set by the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which China signed five years ago.
So far, there has been no major nationwide public awareness campaign to promote the ban.
Enforcement issues and penalties also are not clearly spelled out.
The guidelines say “operators of businesses in public places” must put up “no smoking” notices and take the initiative to stop smokers from lighting up.
Even China’s state news agency Xinhua said Friday the ban is “likely to be ignored by smokers, public venue operators, and the general public due to its vague content,” singling out a lack of clarity on penalties and enforcement.
“The crucial points are control, enforcement and collection of fines. Who will be involved? If these elements are missing, respect (for the ban) becomes optional,” said Teh-wei Hu, a professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley.
Hu said he saw no high-level commitment in China to cut tobacco consumption.
“Given the Chinese political system, we need the premier and the president — or even the vice-premier — to raise this issue publicly. So far we have not heard any comment from them on this topic,” Hu said.
Chen Chi, a 22-year-old public health student, is paying his way through university by working as a waiter in Beijing. He admitted the ban was news to him.
“People won’t change,” he predicted. “More and more young men are starting to smoke.”