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Smoking officials out

2014-01-13 09:34 Global Times Web Editor: Li Yan

"A lot of journalists and tobacco-control experts called me, expressing optimism about the smoking ban for government officials in public venues. They were in consensus that it would greatly help China's tobacco-control situation," Yang Gonghuan, former deputy director-general of China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told the Global Times.

Yang's effusive praise for the ban is understandable given her duty to combat the spread of disease and boost public health.

But given the abject failure of previous smoking bans - it's not uncommon to see patrons smoking in front of no-smoking signs in restaurants - as well as the immense power of China's tobacco industry, which provides a large chunk of the country's taxable revenue, there are good reasons to be skeptical about the success of the ban.

The circular was released by the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council on December 29, 2013, and bans officials from smoking in public areas, including schools, hospitals, sporting venues and public transport facilities.

Notably, in addition to stating that violators would be punished according to Party discipline, it said that officials should be supervised by citizens and the media.

Experts said that this means that anyone who spots officials violating the ban can report it to the corresponding government departments, adding that the circular also for the first time, expresses a political commitment to a reduction in tobacco use.

The ban not only aims to curb smoking among government officials, it is also hoped that in providing an example, it will extend throughout society.

Smoke in their eyes

As the world's largest cigarette producer and consumer, China has more than 300 million smokers.

According to a report released in December 2013 by Beijing-based Thinktank Research Center for Health Development, 2.58 trillion of cigarettes were produced in China in 2012.

According to statistics from the Chinese Association of Tobacco Control, 61 percent of male government officials are habitual smokers.

It is those officials who will bear the brunt of the ban, which is also aimed at improving the government's image.

"Some officials smoke in public areas, which not only damages the environment and public health, but tarnishes the image of the Party and government, which has a negative influence," reads the circular.

It bans government officials from using public funds to buy cigarettes. They are also prohibited from offering cigarettes to others or smoking when performing official duties.

But questions still remain over how effective it will be.

China signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2003 which became effective in January 2006. The FCTC requires a reduction in both tobacco supply and consumption. It also stipulates that China should ban smoking in public places.

In the past 10 years since China signed the convention, the overall consumption of tobacco all across the world declined around 10 percent, but in China, it rose 41.8 percent, the highest growth in the world.

China's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) promised to ban smoking in public places, and local authorities have already issued regulations in line with this. But thus far, results have been less than impressive.

A survey by the Chinese health ministry in August 2013, which looked at hotels and restaurants in four regions of China, found that only 6.1 percent had designated smoking areas and only 1.4 had non-smoking signs.

Experts have widely criticized the previous efforts of local governments, describing them as lagging far behind the FCTC standard, and no national law is yet in place banning smoking in indoor public places.

Tough habit to kick

The smoking ban would have a far-reaching influence on curbing the abuse of public funds to buy cigarettes, Yang noted.

Despite the new smoking ban, officials who are habitual smokers complain that it remains difficult for them to quit smoking in such a short time, as exchanging cigarettes among government officials has for a long time been considered standard practice.

In Central China's Hunan province, some officials were seen smoking in the corridors during a break from a meeting, while in Henan Province, an anonymous official from the provincial emigration department was quoted by the Beijing Times as saying "the policy should not be implemented hastily."

On one occasion, an official in Hequ county, Shanxi province, spent over 60,000 yuan ($9913) on public funds to buy over 150 cartons of expensive cigarettes to give officials who participated in a meeting, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Real will?

Yang, who used to lead the Tobacco Control Office under CDC and currently teaches in Peking Union Medical College, has long worried about whether the authorities are truly committed to reducing tobacco consumption, given the immense pressure exerted by tobacco companies.

"But the circular can be regarded as a political commitment made by the Party and government. Such a vow on tobacco control is unprecedented," Yang said.

Li Tong, a county leader from Fuzhou, Fujian province, said that the effect of the circular is already being felt. "It was a habit to exchange cigarettes before the meeting began. Before, the meeting room was full of smoke when officials gathered. But now, the top leaders in our county have taken the lead in putting out cigarettes before entering the meeting hall, and people followed."

The smoking ban on officials is closely connected with anti-waste campaign, as it represents the central government's resolution on combating corruption, Yang noted.

Starting from January 1, the local government in Lanzhou, Gansu province, has banned smoking in primary and middle schools, Internet cafés, sports venues and some other public places. In Beijing, local authorities have vowed to ban indoor smoking by 2015.

Other local governments are also taking up the cause. No smoking signs can be seen almost everywhere in the conference hall in Shenyang, Liaoning province, where the city's annual people's congress opened on Wednesday, the Shenyang Evening News reported.

Reportedly, leading officials from the Pudong New Area in Shanghai signed documents pledging to take the lead in banning cigarettes and have also organized a supervision team including over 20 citizens, mostly retired, to supervise the enforcement of the smoking ban. Team members are permitted to report any violation of the ban directly to the head of the Pudong New Area government.

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