China's Smokers Confront Changing Culture

The Chinese government has promised to make the 2008 Summer Olympics in Bejiing "smoke-free." But that won't be an easy task for the world's largest consumer and producer of tobacco.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The government of China wants its people to make a dramatic change. The goal is to make the capital, Beijing, smoke-free in time for next year's Olympics. To achieve that, all China has to do is cut back smoking in a country that is the world's largest producer of tobacco - and the world's largest consumer. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The goal is to make the Beijing Olympics smoke-free, not all of Beijing.]

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from a nation of 350 million smokers.

ANTHONY KUHN: The vice head of China's State Tobacco Monopoly Bureau caused a minor uproar last month at the annual session of parliament. Zhang Baozhen was responding to motions by some legislators for a nationwide ban on smoking in public places. He said that smokers in the former Soviet Union rioted when they couldn't get cigarettes, and this could happen in China, too. Gregory Zang(ph) is one of the many anti-tobacco advocates who were not amused.

Mr. GREGORY ZANG (Anti-tobacco Advocate): This is the type of statement repeated by those who are taking advantage of the system to fool people, but they cannot fool me. They come from an expert. The pity is that the top news in China, only here, this side - this argument.

KUHN: Zang says that the government's tobacco monopoly is a powerful force. It cranks our nearly two trillion cigarettes a year and generates more than $20 billion in tax revenues. He adds that restaurants, offices and hospitals in Beijing all have signs banning smoking, but they don't seem to have much effect.

Mr. ZANG: Beijing has a (unintelligible) that banned smoking publicly for 10 years now, but it's not enforced. I'll give you one good example: taxis.

(Soundbite of car engine)

KUHN: Thirty-one-year-old Yen Chen Hao(ph) says he's never been fined for smoking at the wheel in the 10 years he's been a taxi driver.

Mr. YEN CHEN HAO (Taxi Driver, Beijing): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: We usually get out of our cabs to smoke, he says - unless, of course, our passengers smoke. If they're smoking and I have to smell that, well, hey, I might as well light up, too. Yen says about half of his passengers smoke. He himself sees no reason to quit. His pack a day costs him 50 cents, and his health is not bad. Besides...

Mr. YEN: (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: Smoking is a symbol of manhood, he says. If you don't drink and smoke, people think you're some kind of idiot. But some experts believe the tide has turned in favor of tobacco control. Dr. Yang Gonghuan is the deputy director of China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She says that the total number of smokers in China is still around 350 million, but there have been decreases in key parts of the population.

Dr. YANG GONGHUAN (Deputy Director, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, China): (Through translator) I compared our surveys from 1996 and 2002. In 1996, 63 percent - or roughly two-thirds - of adult males in China smoked. By 2002, that figure had dropped to 56 percent. That means 7 percent quit smoking.

KUHN: She also found that about half of all Chinese were passive smokers. That is, they inhale secondhand smoke. Those numbers have stayed the same, but passive smoking among women of childbearing age had declined, and Dr. Yang says this indicates that more Chinese understand the risks smoking poses to pregnant women and babies. Dr. Yang says better access to education in China has helped. She also credits the administration of President Hu Jintao, which has put health care higher on its agenda.

Dr. YANG: (Through translator) Since taking over, the current administration has paid more attention to the negative consequences of economic growth such as environmental pollution and public health issues. They took over just as the SARS epidemic hit.

KUHN: The severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003 alerted China's leaders to the neglect from which the nation's heath care system was suffering. Dr. Yang also credits the Chinese leadership for ratifying the World Health Organization's framework on tobacco control in 2005. It requires bigger health warnings on cigarette packages, higher taxes on tobacco and stricter bans on smoking in public places.

But Yang's survey found a decline in public support for such bans. Liu Chun(ph) is a meter reader for a heating company. He describes himself as a heavy smoker who's been unable to kick the habit. He's not optimistic about bans, but he supports them, anyway.

Mr. LIU CHUN (Meter reader, Heavy smoker): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: It would be difficult, he says, but I hope the government will ban smoking in public places. In fact, he adds, I wish the government would force me to quit smoking. Except for the few hours I'm asleep, I'm smoking all the time.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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