China debates nationwide smoking ban amid fears of a rollback

Anti-smokers want Beijing rules adopted nationwide but tobacco lobby is strong

China, home to the world's biggest population of smokers, is gearing up to introduce a national smoking ban in public places, but there are report the countrywide ban will exempt restaurants, bars, hotels and airports.

The toughest anti-smoking rules in the country are in Beijing, which issued rules in June last year in line with the World Health Organisation's Tobacco Framework Convention. In all, 18 Chinese cities have followed this framework, and anti-smoking lobbyists hope the Beijing rules will be adopted nationwide.

However, the South China Morning Post quoted sources that had read a bill presented to the State Council, or cabinet, and they were "shocked" by how much it had been watered down from the version put up for public consultation in November 2014.

The earlier draft proposed a ban on smoking at all indoor, and some outdoor, public spaces.


China is home to the world’s most enthusiastic smokers, with 300 million lighting up on a regular basis and another 740 million passive smokers, and tobacco revenues accounting for between 7 and 10 per cent of government revenues.

This year the government introduced a tobacco tax that prompted a 3.3 per cent fall in the number of cigarettes sold.

The tobacco lobby is so powerful because the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration controls the China National Tobacco Corporation, the world's largest manufacturer of cigarettes.

A study last year showed that two-thirds of young men in China start smoking before the age of 20, and unless they stop smoking, around half of them die of smoking-related illnesses.

Zheng Pinpin, director of Fudan University's tobacco control centre, told the Global Times newspaper that China had been examining the norms in other countries for inspiration.

She pointed out how there were smoking rooms in many airports in Europe, because smoking rates are still high in Europe. However, 27 of the 35 busiest airports in the US are now smoke-free.

She said smoking rooms were not an option.

"Scientific evidence has unequivocally established that exposure to tobacco smoke causes death, disease and disability. It cannot be assumed that people inhaling second-hand smoke are safe even if the concentration of the smoke is lower or the exposure time is shorter," Ms Zheng said.

Bernhard Schwartlaender, the WHO's representative in China, has said he wants the Beijing rules to be emulated all over China.

“The Beijing law is the strongest in China, one of the strongest we have worldwide. It’s in full compliance with WHO tobacco framework convention, which regulates. It’s enforced very well,” he told the state broadcaster CCTV.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing