July 23, 2008

A Smoke-Free Olympics?

By Andrew Jacobs

A smartly dressed man carried a lighted cigarette into the elevator of an upscale apartment building one recent morning, and something remarkable happened. A fellow passenger, a middle-aged matron 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 smokes - and where doctors light up in hospital hallways and health ministers puff away during meetings - it was a telling sign that a decade of half-hearted public campaigns against tobacco may finally be gaining some traction.

Last May, the municipal government imposed a series of measures banning cigarettes in schools, railway stations, office buildings and other public places. Chinese athletes are no longer permitted to accept sponsorships from tobacco companies, and cigarette advertising on billboards will be restricted during the Olympic Games. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has declared that the Olympics will be "smoke free."

Despite the new laws and proclamations, the impact might elude 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 $1.40 fine offers little deterrence - especially to the nouveau riche entrepreneurs who gleefully brandish gold-filtered Chunghua, which sell for $10 a pack.

Li Baojun, the manager of a popular restaurant on Ghost Street, explained why he does 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."

The Chinese have had a long and entrenched affair with tobacco. About 350 million people here are regular smokers - more than the entire population of the United States - 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 declare, and even when confronted with scientific reason, they cite Deng Xiaoping, an inveterate smoker who lived to 92, and Mao Zedong, who smoked until his death at 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 smoking can lead to heart disease and circulation problems. (Unlike cigarettes in much of the world, Chinese brands carry no health warning on the label, although that is slated 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 2-year-old son sat next to her 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."

The Chinese devotion to tobacco is deeply rooted. At wedding parties, the bride often passes out Double Happiness brand cigarettes to her guests - a tradition meant to enhance her fertility. Mourners at Chinese funerals are generously plied with smokes, and a handful burned at the grave site is meant to satisfy the craving of the deceased on the other side.

When the police pull over a driver for a traffic infraction, a pack of cigarettes, not a license, is often the first thing pulled from the glove compartment. And during tough business negotiations, a round of smoking is an invaluable lubricant that can help the opposing sides break through a logjam.

"Cigarettes have an extra value in China that helps improve many social interactions," said Tang Weichang, a researcher at the China Tobacco Museum in Shanghai.

Smoking here is largely a male pastime - more than 60 percent of men smoke compared with 3 percent of women - and declining a cigarette is sometimes taken as an insult. Guo Fei, a nonsmoker whose family-owned restaurant is largely smoke free, said he would often accept a proffered cigarette, stick it behind his ear, and then later throw it away.

"To reject a cigarette would make them lose face," he said.

The nation's lukewarm efforts to curb smoking are complicated by government control over the tobacco industry, one that provides about $31 billion in taxes each year, or about 8 percent of the central government's revenue. China produces a third of the world's tobacco, with more than 400 brands offered at Beijing's ubiquitous tobacco shops. During a debate over anti-smoking measures last year, Zhang Baozhen, a vice director of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, warned that "without cigarettes, the country's stability will be affected."

Earlier this year, Beijing officials announced a far more draconian smoking ban that would have included bars, restaurants, karaoke lounges and massage parlors, but that proposal, opposed by business interests, quickly foundered. The new law only encourages eating and drinking establishments to set aside nonsmoking areas; so far, only a handful of restaurants have obliged.

It doesn't help that cigarettes are extremely cheap. Some of the more popular brands, including those with catchy names like Big Harvest, Little Panda and Yellow Pagoda, cost less than 50 cents a pack, although some of the better brands sell for more than $10. Foreign brands like Marlboro and Camel have made little headway here.

There has been some progress in stamping out the country's tobacco addiction. More than 150 cities have imposed anti-smoking regulations, and the World Health Organization has been pressuring the government to do more, citing what it calls an epidemic of lung cancer and other smoking-related illnesses that cost China $5 billion in annual health care costs. The spike in smoking has mirrored the rise in incomes. The average smoker consumes 15 cigarettes a day, up from 10 in 1992 and 4 in 1972.

Dr. Hans Troedsson, the WHO representative in China, said that there had been progress educating people in urban areas about the hazards of smoking but that there was little understanding of smoking's ill effects in rural areas, where most of the country's 1.3 billion people live. "We're starting to see a shift, but the going has been slow," he said.

At Block 8, a fashionable Beijing nightclub, half the patrons had a cigarette dangling from their lips. (The other half had cigarette packs set out.) Emma Cheung, 32, a fashion editor at World Metropolis magazine, said smoking makes her thin, calms her nerves and fuels her creativity. She said that she would support a complete ban on smoking indoors - but that she would not quit until her co- workers did so first.

"Yes, I'm addicted, but so is everyone else at the office," she said. "If we didn't smoke, I don't know how we would get anything done."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

(c) 2008 International Herald Tribune. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.