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Castles in the Air
by Valerie Sartor
2008-05-27 07:30:48
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As of May 1, 2008 stricter anti-smoking regulations went into effect around Beijing in accordance with international treaties that guarantee a smoke-free Olympics. Earlier, in 1995 and 1996 the People's Congress established the first set of laws against smoking in public places around Beijing. The new May laws serve to enhance older anti-smoking regulations. When asked, my colleague Wang Qian assured me that smoking on buses has been banned much longer than 1995 and that trains require smokers to stand in areas between cars so they do not disturb other passengers.

But is it truly so?

An Australian friend was mulling around a hotel lobby near the Beijing Zoo this week when he saw a punky young Chinese girl loitering and just about to light up her cigarette. Suddenly a primly dressed matron, apparently a hotel manager, wearing a tag stating "smoking control" marched up to the woman and said pointedly: "Excuse me madam, would you like some mint candy?" She then firmly handed over the new smoking ban materials with the mints. The young lady dramatically extinguished her cigarette and shrugged at my friend.

Unfortunately I'm not finding these rules, old or new, to be strictly enforced in other places as well. During the recent May holidays I traveled overnight by train, first class no less, to Inner Mongolia to visit old friends. My cabin mates were all solid male citizens, dressed in nice suits. They seemed polite and confident, excellent, superior wage earners who treated the world with decorum and respect. Except, unfortunately, regarding the smoking laws. Two of the three men nonchalantly stepped outside the compartment after the train left the station and lit up, despite the soft voiced protests of the pretty young conductress. These men nonchalantly watched the landscape speeding by while I inhaled their second hand smoke that wafted through the walls, permeating the cabin, my hair, my clothes and my already congested lungs.

"You don't understand China," He Shan, my company's translator told me after I complained to her. "Most men in China smoke; it's a sign of being virile, of being a real man. You must know by now that the Chinese government owns a large share of the tobacco enterprises and it's really a very powerful industry, just as it is in your country. Tobacco provides jobs for farmers and factory workers as well as national tax revenues - so enforcing these bans is no easy task."

Indeed, as of 2007 China had 350 million smokers, with the vast majority being men. That's more than the entire population of Germany, Japan and Russia. Moreover, the Chinese consume a third of the global tobacco resources, with a fifth of the world's population. That's a lot of money in tobacco tax, 31 billion dollars in 2005 to be exact.

Tobacco also provides jobs and growth, despite the negative social costs incurred by cancer, emphysema and related lung and organ illnesses. A 2007 Bloomberg news article estimated that the nicotine habit kills a million people a year on average and costs 5 billion dollars a year in medical fees.

I grew up during an era when smoking was allowed everywhere: on airplanes, buses and in all public places. It took me years to understand that my motion sickness wasn't due to motion: it was the second hand smoke that made me nauseous and constantly reaching for those awful paper bags in front of my seat. Now, thankfully even though the US has no federal smoking ban 19 states, including my home state, prohibit it in restaurants; 15 states ban smoking in the workplace. No US airplane, bus or public conveyance allows passengers to smoke.

Because of the crowds I had to return to Beijing by sleeper bus; train tickets were utterly sold out. "You'll be fine, it's cheaper and you can lie down and sleep," Mr. Yang, my Chinese friend, said as we parted. I snuggled up into my coffin like space right at the front and eagerly waited for the journey to begin. The driver grinned at me, counted heads and closed the door; we were off. Then he and three other men lit up their cigarettes and smoked the entire journey. My only positive thought as I writhed in agony was the fact that I hadn't had any dinner because I'd been too busy to eat. Otherwise my sleepless trip would have been even more unpleasant for not just me but my bedmates as well.

When we arrived in Xizhimun Station I exited as fast as I could, feeling faint and angry. My clothes stunk and my sinuses ached. Flagging down a cab and jumping in, the driver turned to me. "Good morning," he said, "Want a smoke?"

"No!" I shouted, "Put that cigarette out, it says right here on your dashboard: smoking in cabs is strictly prohibited as of October 2007."

"Ok, ok," he replied, "I was just trying to be friendly, take it easy."

I certainly didn't want to fight so I opened the window and chatted with the cabbie. Later that same day I decided to eat at my favorite noodle joint and wondered if the smoking ban would really be in effect. Local newspapers stated that smoking officials assigned to the smoke free Olympic campaign had publicly bragged: "What we do is prevent smoking inside public areas. Fortunately there were no offenders during the 3-day holiday. Smokers cooperated with us." Today was the fourth day: would people smoke?

The smoke-free city push supposedly extends non-smoking areas to all restaurants. Newspapers state that larger, luxury restaurants especially catering to the foreign populace have already separated smoking from non-smoking areas over 20 days ago and that "No Smoking" signs have replaced ashtrays on the tables of many restaurants.

But the truth is that Beijing hosts over 40 thousand restaurants; lots are dives and holes in the wall – and delicious places to chow down if you don't mind the constant fog of cigarette smoke. Enforcing a ban among the vast proletariat is going to be pretty hard to implement. The restaurant owner excitedly told me: "With only a dozen tables in a confined space, how can non-smokers be separate from smokers? Asking smoking customers to smoke outside is definitely rude and this would affect business; I'd go broke. You're the only person here who doesn't smoke!"

So his customers still openly smoked. Okay, okay: smoking is an addiction and addictions take time to get over. Yesterday I read that the smoking in public penalties have already increased, perhaps because smokers are not as compliant as authorities had hoped. The Beijing Committee of Patriotic Public Health Campaign even declared that, eventually, offenders will be fined anywhere from 1-5 thousand RMB. (7 RMB =1USD)

The Olympics are certainly changing things around Beijing. How effective the changes will be, how long the changes will last - my guess is that like many face saving efforts enacted by the Chinese, the end result will be as about as durable as the wisp of cigarette smoke floating by my ears as I slurped my spicy beef noodles.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-05-27 09:53:02
The answer to the question on the cover is in the picture on the cover: Mao hovering in the background. He would have had no problem in enforcing a law of the land. That's what a dictator does: he enforces and to hell with freedom. So we can assume that the present dicattors of China, have already been corrupted by the profit motive of capitalism, and that would indeed be good news. Freedom has arrived and smoking as a sign of it! The downside of course is cancer and emphesima. It would appear that not even freedom is free!

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