Mainland makes little progress on regulation
Efforts to stamp out smoking on the mainland took a giant stride forward last week when Harbin, Heilongjiang province, passed its toughest ban on smoking indoors.
The move has given fresh hope to tobacco-control activists calling for national action to honour an international commitment.
The Regulations on the Control of Harm Posed by Second-hand Smoke, passed by Harbin's people's congress on Thursday, for the first time banned smoking in all public indoor areas, including workplaces.
They are the closest that mainland legislation has come to meeting the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control's demand for a smoke-free indoor environment. China ratified the convention in 2005.
The regulations define indoor workplaces, indoor public places and public transport vehicles and their waiting rooms as public indoor areas that must be free of smoking. They also help ensure enforcement by making specific government agencies responsible for different places.
For example, education authorities will supervise smoking control in schools. The food and drug administration is in charge of restaurants. And the public security bureau is looking after internet cafes, public baths and hotels.
The regulations also toughen penalties for those who light up in areas where smoking is banned.
The mainland has more than 300 million smokers. Some 740 million people, including 180 million children, are affected by secondary smoke, according to a China Tobacco Control Report released last week by the China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Progress on tobacco control has been slow since China ratified the international agreement six years ago. Even though several cities, including Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou , have passed legislation, national action has yet to appear on the central government's legislative agenda.
Professor Yang Yin, a legal expert at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said national legislation was needed to level tough punishments for smoking offences. Under mainland law, only the National People's Congress and the State Council can legislate on restricting physical liberty and revoking business licenses. National laws on cigarette packaging would be easier to implement, Yang said.
'The problem with tobacco control in China is the government agency mixing with enterprises,' Yang said. The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, which is responsible for policy and regulation, also administers the China National Tobacco Corporation, the biggest tobacco manufacturer in the world.
'It is hard to restrict such a big state-owned enterprise with city-level legislation,' Yang said. 'More importantly, for the sake of its image China should have high-level legislation on tobacco control.'
Beijing pledged to ban smoking in public places in the five-year plan approved by National People's Congress in March. On May 1, the mainland started banning smoking in indoor public places. However, workplaces were not included and the ban, initiated by the Ministry of Health, is difficult to enforce.
Mao Yu, deputy director of the Beijing Health Bureau, said he had not heard of anyone being punished for violating the regulation.
'The regulation is more of a guideline in principle and we need a detailed guideline of execution. So far we rely on [persuasion],' Mao said.
Yang Jie, deputy director of the CDC's tobacco control office, said the regulation was a weak, low-level one. 'A law is needed to empower government agencies to enforce smoking bans,' Yang Jie said.
In January a report by the CDC and Tsinghua University blamed the tobacco industry's interference in policymaking for the lack of progress on tobacco control in the past five years. It predicted that deaths caused by smoking-related illnesses would triple to 3.5 million a year by 2030.
The number of foreign-brand cigarettes smoked on the mainland each year
- Just 3 per cent of the total of 1.7 trillion