No Joke: China Bans Smoking

It would seem difficult to enforce a ban on 300 million smokers. Host Liane Hansen talks to NPR's Rob Gifford in China, where businesses are putting up no-smoking signs, cigarette vending machines are being removed from restaurants, and designated outdoor smoking zones are being established in preparation for a ban on smoking in public places that takes effect Sunday.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

More than one in three of the world's cigarette smokers are Chinese, and it's believed the habit causes more than 1 million deaths each year in China. The government is trying to change that with a move today to ban smoking in some public places. NPR's Rob Gifford is in Shanghai. Hi, Rob.

ROB GIFFORD: Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: Where is the ban going to be enforced?

GIFFORD: Well, they say it's going to be enforced in bars and restaurants and buses. That's what the government announcements have said. They say it's not going to be enforced in workplaces. I think they think that's just going to be a step too far. The big question, of course, is will they be able to implement it in all those places?

Smoking is very deeply entrenched in Chinese culture, and I'm not sure that Chinese smokers are going to take kindly to these new regulations.

HANSEN: Then how likely, what are the odds, that people will actually obey it?

GIFFORD: Well, the weird thing about it is, like so many Chinese laws, I think the Chinese government is trying to look as though it's doing something about this issue. Certainly to the outside world, it's trying to look responsible. It knows that smoking causes all sorts of diseases. And it has the problem of the cost of health care, of course.

But on the flip side, of course, you've got the massive amounts of tax revenue that come in for the Chinese government. Something like between 7 and 8 percent of total tax revenue is from cigarette-related taxes and profits.

HANSEN: Can China afford the drop in tax revenue?

GIFFORD: That's the big question, and I think there's a much bigger issue here for China - not just about smoking. It's - can it implement the laws that it says it wants to implement? And I think that it has to do it in order to reduce its health-care costs. They say 3,000 people are dying every day from a smoking-related disease. It's just that, how do you overcome something that is so deeply rooted in Chinese culture?

HANSEN: So what's the punishment for smoking in a place where you're not supposed to?

GIFFORD: They say the punishment is 30,000 renminbi, which is about four and a half thousand dollars. But again, like everything in China, it's all about the enforcement. It's all very well to have a law like that. There are many fantastic laws - it's amazing. Scholars say China has very complete legal system on the books. It's just, they don't enforce it. So there's a real dilemma for them.

And certainly - I've been just around Shanghai, just around where I live here, talking to restaurant owners. They seem very, very loose about it. They said, no, if you want to come in and smoke, that's fine by us. The government is recommending that we try to stop people -as one restaurant owner told me. So I'm not holding my breath, if you'll excuse the pun, that this is really going to be enforced very strictly.

HANSEN: NPR's Rob Gifford in Shanghai. Thanks a lot, Rob.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Liane.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is NPR News.

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