Posted by: Frederik Balfour on April 1, 2008
Judging from the many comments from Chinese readers of my last blog on foreign broadcast bans from Tiananmen Square during the Olympics, you’d think that the international media have no other agenda but to vilify the Chinese government. So please allow me to disabuse you of that notion by taking this opportunity to extend my heartfelt praise for Beijing’s efforts to clamp down on smoking in public places. According to the China Daily, beginning May 1, smoking at government offices, public dining halls and business plazas, and on public transportation as part of the city’s pledge to stage a Smoke-Free Olympics.
There are an estimated 350 million smokers in China, and the Ministry of Health estimates that at least one million people die from health-related causes per year and that one third of all men in their twenties and thirties will die of smoking within 30 to 40 years—as two thirds of this age group smokes, one half of whom will die from either cancer or heart failure. When you factor in deaths from second-hand smoke, the numbers get scarier still. More than 100,000 die annually from diseases caused by passive smoking, said the ministry’s 2007 Report on China’s Smoking Control.
So again, I say “Bravo” to Beijing for trying to snuff out smoking in more public places. Last fall it banned people from lighting up in taxis, while smoking in hospitals, schools and museums has been outlawed for more than a decade and smoking rates have fallen from 34.5% in 1997 to 23% last year. Sadly, much of the rest of the country lags badly behind on reducing the incidence of smoking.
Less encouraging was the decision taken at the latest meeting of the National People’s Congress last month to merge the State Tobacco Monopoly Adminstration into a new Ministry of Industry and Information. I foresee conflicts between this new “super” ministry and the Ministry of Health. All legal tobacco production is controlled by the government, but thousands of illegal cigarette factories crank out hundreds of millions of counterfeit cigarettes per year, making quality control virtually impossible. These gaspers are especially heavy in tar and nicotine, and sell for as little as 40 cents a pack. And although China has pledged to abolish all forms of tobacco advertising and sponsorship by 2011, presently only 28 cities on the Chinese mainland are free of advertising on tobacco.
But even Beijing has some way to go. Smoking is still allowed in the workplace, for example. Indeed, unlike the west, there isn’t much of a social stigma attached to smoking, and the country does not yet have much in the way of celebrity anti smoking advocates such as super model Kristy Turlington. Zhang Ziyi, are you listening?