A smartly dressed man carried a lighted cigarette into the elevator of an upscale apartment building in Beijing one recent morning and something remarkable happened. A fellow passenger, a middle-aged woman with a pet Maltese tethered to her wrist, waved a hand in front of her face and produced a series of mannered coughs that had the desired effect — the man stepped on the cigarette and muttered an apology.
In a country where one in four people smoke, and where doctors light up in hospital hallways and health ministers puff away during meetings, it was a telling sign that a decade of halfhearted public campaigns against tobacco might finally be gaining traction.
In May, the municipal government banned cigarettes in schools, railway stations, office buildings and other public places. Chinese athletes are no longer permitted to accept tobacco company sponsorships. Cigarette advertising on billboards will be restricted during the Olympics. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) has declared that the Games will be “smoke free.”
Despite the new laws and proclamations, the impact might elude non-smoking visitors who arrive in the capital next month. Most restaurants remain shrouded in smoke, the air in clubs and bars can be asphyxiating and a year-old prohibition against lighting up in Beijing taxis has had little effect.
“If I point to the no-smoking sign, the passenger will just laugh and keep smoking,” said Hui Guo, a cab driver who does not smoke.
Government officials say that 100,000 inspectors have been dispatched to ticket smoking scofflaws, but the US$1.40 fine offers little deterrence, especially to the nouveau riche entrepreneurs who proudly brandish the gold-filtered Chunghua brand, which sells for US$10 a pack.
Li Baojun, the manager of a popular restaurant on Ghost Street, explained why he did not dare tell patrons to stop chain-smoking during meals.
“My customers would rather starve than not smoke and I would go out of business,” he said, as a thick pall hung over the diners. “In China, you cannot drink, eat and socialize without a cigarette.”
About 350 million of China’s 1.3 billion people are regular smokers — more than the entire population of the US — and even though 1.2 million people die each year from smoking-related causes, there is a widespread belief that cigarettes hold some health benefits. A cigarette in the morning is energizing, many smokers will declare, and even when confronted with scientific reason, they will cite Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), an inveterate smoker who lived to 92, and Mao Zedong (毛澤東), who lived to 82.
Health care workers are not exactly the best role models — more than half of all Chinese medical professionals smoke and a 2004 government survey of 3,600 doctors found that 30 percent did not know that smoking could lead to heart disease and circulation problems. Unlike cigarettes in much of the world, Chinese brands carry no health warning on labels, although that is scheduled to change in 2011.
Smoking with one hand and wielding a pair of chopsticks with the other, Li Na, 26, a secretary, was unapologetic as her two-year-old son sat next to her at a restaurant here enveloped in a bluish haze.
“If you overprotect your children, they don’t build their immunity,” she said. “Breathing a little smoke when they are small makes them stronger.”