Mainland smoking war calls for determination

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2011, 12:00am


There is a temptation to think of it as yet another case of officials blowing smoke. A week after the mainland's first wide-ranging public indoor smoking ban took effect, there is little sign that much has changed. Customers continue to light up as much as before in restaurants, bars, nightclubs and entertainment venues. The no-smoking signs, warnings from owners and managers and encouragement from staff to dissuade the habit - all requirements of the law - are scarcely in evidence.

Such a response is hardly surprising. The nation is hooked on cigarettes and cigars. One quarter of the 1.34 billion people smoke - the figure among men is about six in 10 - and the number has changed little. Few people understand the health risks. Cartons of cigarettes are a popular gift and a prerequisite for deal-making.

Smokers call it a matter of culture or tradition. They point to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping , the chain-smoking heroes of communist China, who lived to the ages of 82 and 92, respectively, as reasons to keep up their habit. Cigarettes are defended as warding off stress, mosquitoes and colds, while mothers widely believe that exposing their children to second-hand smoke will make them stronger. And there are benefits for the government: the tax from tobacco products each year raises more than 500 billion yuan (HK$587 billion), 7.5 per cent of revenue. Together, these factors may account for why the ban, which also applies to public transport and hotels and stipulates that cigarette vending machines cannot be located in public places, lacks teeth. Enforcement and penalties are not spelled out in the law, while no significant public awareness campaign was held to promote its introduction. An existing ban on smoking in schools, government buildings and railways stations is lightly enforced. Even though it is not allowed in hospitals, half of all doctors smoke.

There is no disputing the health costs of smoking or that they are rising. Smoking-related diseases kill about 1.2 million mainlanders each year, a figure that is expected to double by 2025 and triple by 2050. The annual medical bill is thought to be about US$6 billion, although that is certain to soar with increased access to treatment as the public health-care system improves. Authorities well know these details and why action is needed: it is why, five years ago, the nation was among the first to ratify the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

The deadline to honour the provisions of the convention came and went four months ago. With the ban taking effect, there is a chance to make amends for the failure. But it appears officials are having trouble weighing up the conflicting interests.

Anti-smoking activists contend that it now costs the government more to treat related illnesses than is being gained in revenue. They applaud the ban and measures enacted in recent years such as the introduction of health warnings on cigarette packets and the outlawing of advertising on television and radio. Smoking is no longer allowed in the Great Hall of the People. Consumption taxes have been increasing, but not enough - mainland cigarettes are still among the cheapest in the world. If Hong Kong is any guide, though, hefty rises will cause demand to plunge, as happened after our government increased the tax by 41.5 per cent in February. Strict enforcement of laws and better education about the risks of smoking are essential; larger and more explicit warnings on packets will end the gift-giving culture. Above all else, though, there has to be determination from the leadership.