China’s exemptions to smoking ban ‘undermine’ fight against tobacco at city level

Watered-down draft law, which allows lighting up in restaurants, bars, hotels and airports, makes it harder to enact tough legislation at municipal level, campaigners say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2016, 9:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 10:40am

Plans to modify China’s proposed national smoking ban by granting exemptions to restaurants, bars, hotels and airports would deal a heavy blow to cities that have already passed the strict law and discourage other cities from approving it, tobacco-control advocates say.

The State Council issued a draft of the Ordinance on Smoking Control in Public Spaces in November 2014, which proposed a ban on smoking in all indoor – and some outdoor – public spaces.

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However, the latest version plans to allow restaurants, bars, hotels and airports to set up smoking areas, while smoking in the workplace inside individual offices will also be allowed, according to sources who have read the draft.

This is a heavy blow to the cities that have passed strict legislation to ban smoking in all indoors public spaces, such as Beijing
Wu Yiqun

This would be in direct conflict with a joint directive by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council in 2013, which urged government officials to take the lead in stamping out smoking in public places.

“This is a heavy blow to the cities that have passed strict legislation to ban smoking in all indoor public spaces, such as Beijing,” said Wu Yiqun, of the ThinkTank Research Centre for Health Development, which is committed to tobacco control.

“Although Beijing has achieved a great deal in the past year through implementing a strict smoke-free law, it was not an easy battle.

“If this national law is passed with many loopholes, then Beijing will face many more difficulties,” Wu added, although she said she believed Beijing would not amend its local legislation to relax requirements.

Imposing controls on smoking remains difficult on the mainland because the industry is state-owned and highly lucrative.

The industry generated more than 1.09 trillion yuan (HK$1.3 trillion) in profit and tax revenue last year.

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About 49.79 million cartons of cigarettes were produced last year – down 2.36 per cent on 2014.

Eighteen cities in China have passed municipal-level laws, with legislation introduced in Beijing the strongest and fully compliant with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which calls for a total ban on smoking in all indoor workplaces, public transport, indoor public areas and other public places.

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Wu said many campaigners in other cities had expressed disappointment that such changes to the law would make their anti-smoking efforts very difficult and that they would rather have no law at all than a lax law.

Although Beijing would still need to abide by municipal tobacco control laws – meaning that there would be no return of smoking-room areas in airports, bars and restaurants – relaxing the national law would make it very difficult to implement this municipal-level legislation, said Huang Jinrong, associate researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who was involved in drawing up the original draft for public consultation.

“The new draft would allow local areas to make legislation much stricter and, legally speaking, it does not affect Beijing – but in practice enforcement will face greater challenges when everyone knows the higher-level law involves fewer restrictions,” Huang said.

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The latest draft version also set a bad example for cities that had not passed laws banning smoking, or were on the way to amending loopholes to the current law, he said.

“The motivation to pass a strict tobacco control law is greatly undermined if the national law introduces exemptions,” Huang said.

In a written statement, Dr Bernhard Schwartländer, WHO representative in China, said that its framework convention required a total smoke-free environment to protect people from second-hand smoke.

The current draft regulations would be about as useful for protecting health “as a bucket with a giant hole in the bottom is for collecting water”, Schwartländer said.

A smoke-free law full of loopholes would also be more difficult to implement, he said.

The easiest law to enforce was one that was simple and that everyone understood.

The changes would do great harm to China’s international standing, just when Shanghai was preparing to host a major international conference on health later this year, he said.