Smokers chased in Beijing as China considers nationwide ban on indoor smoking

As China considers a nationwide ban on smoking in public places, the fight is well under way in Beijing, smoking in restaurants and other indoor areas were banned 18 months ago.

Director Zhang Jianshu shows where smoking control volunteers are located in the Chinese capital through a computer screen at the government-funded Beijing Tobacco Control Association, as China considers a nationwide ban on smoking indoors. Andy Wong/AP Photo
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BEIJING // A group of anti-smoking volunteers in blue vests marched through an office building on a recent morning in China’s capital, trailed by two police officers and the building’s management. As people peered out of the doorways, the volunteers turned several corners and stopped in front of a stairwell door. One of them pushed it open.

There stood an office worker, pressing a cellphone to one ear and holding a lit cigarette in his other hand. Someone had turned him in.

A stern lecture followed from the group’s leader, a stocky, 32-year-old fine arts teacher named Liu Li.

“Today, we won’t punish you, but we will criticise and educate you,” Ms Liu said sternly, as the worker bowed and apologised repeatedly. “Don’t throw cigarette butts around. You must not act like this next time.”

As China considers a nationwide ban on smoking in public places, the fight is well under way in Beijing, smoking in restaurants and other indoor areas were banned 18 months ago.

Zealous volunteers and anti-smoking advocates have made some headway against millions of smokers and the state-run cigarette monopoly, a large and powerful force in China’s government and economy.

Cigarettes are a cultural symbol in China, where national leaders dating back to Mao Zedong were well-known smokers, and where cigarettes are still handed out commonly at weddings, banquets and holiday celebrations.

The tobacco industry employs more than 300,000 people and remains a key source of revenue in the national budget. The state tobacco monopoly administration generated more than US$150 billion (Dh550bn) in tax revenues last year.

But tobacco extracts a huge cost as well. About 1 million deaths a year in China can be attributed to cigarettes, a figure that could triple by 2050 without greater action to curb the habit.

China has more than 300 million smokers and nearly half of China’s adult males smoke regularly, according to the World Bank.

For all of the attention given to China’s notorious air pollution, it is smoking that is often far more damaging and far easier to correct, said Dr Bernhard Schwartlander, who has worked for several years in China as the World Health Organisation’s local representative.

“When the air is bad outside, everybody gets upset and talks about it,” said Dr Schwartlander. However, “just a few smokers in a room in an average restaurant can cause air pollution inside that is worse than the very worst days we see in Beijing”, he said.

On Thursday, Beijing issued its first air pollution red alert for 2016, as choking smog is expected to cover the city and surrounding areas in north China during the next five days.

From 8 pm on Friday, half of Beijing’s private cars will be ordered off the road, with an odd-even number plate system in force, according to a notice posted by the Beijing municipal government.

Construction sites will be closed, and some industrial plants and enterprises will limit or stop production, the notice added. A red alert, issued when severe smog is expected to last more than 72 hours, is the highest of Beijing’s four-tiered, colour-coded warning system.

At the behest of the WHO and other advocates, China has launched a national anti-smoking campaign supported by Chinese president Xi Jinping. At a health conference last month in Shanghai, an official with China’s national health commission said it was considering a nationwide ban targeting smoking in public places, possibly as soon as the end of this year. Shanghai issued an indoor smoking ban just before the conference, and other cities have also followed suit.

A network of volunteers has been trained by the government-funded Beijing Tobacco Control Association to monitor complaints and catch smokers.At a recent training for volnteers, association director Zhang Jianshu showed off an interactive map of Beijing on a flat-screen television that was dotted with small blue sirens marking the spot of a complaint submitted by a tipster.

Volunteers must pledge never to have smoked before, said Liu Li, the volunteer who led the pursuit of smokers in stairwells. Anyone caught smoking is expelled from the group.

Just 2,700 people have been fined since the law went into effect, an average of fewer than five a day, according to state media. But residents of Beijing almost uniformly agree the campaign has made an impact.

“A couple of years ago, you couldn’t enter any bar or any restaurant without being exposed to smoke,” Dr Schwartlander said. “Today, it’s almost the absolute exception.”

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse