Beijing tries to kick habit before Games

By AUDRA ANG, Associated Press Writer Sun Mar 30, 4:47 AM ET

BEIJING - Cui Dalin, China's deputy sports minister, told legislators that the Beijing Olympics would inspire Chinese to live healthier lives. Then he stepped out into a nonsmoking hallway and lit a cigarette.

The recent incident illustrates the uphill battle China faces as it prepares to take what health advocates hope will be a big step against smoking in what is the world's biggest tobacco market. A ban on smoking in most Beijing public places, similar to efforts in major North American, European and Asian cities, is expected to take effect in May, aimed at meeting China's pledge of a smoke-free Olympics.

China is home to 350 million smokers a third of the global total. More than 150 Chinese cities already have limited restrictions, but the capital would be the first to ban smoking in all restaurants, offices and schools, said health expert Cui Xiaobo, who helped draft the regulations. The restaurant ban may be limited at first.

"There's no way it will work!" said Jin Xianchun, a co-owner of Little Jin's Seafood Restaurant, where diners were smoking up a storm as they chose live fish and shrimp from tanks. "Of course it will affect my business ... We will try our best to enforce, it but really...." She shook her head.

Cigarettes are woven into Chinese daily life. They're an icebreaker, a way of greeting a friend, and a means of bribery. A night out typically means a good meal and cigarettes paired with baijiu, a clear sorghum liquor with a vicious kick.

Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the late communist founding fathers, were heavy smokers, and their favorite brands are as well known as they are: Panda for Deng and Zhonghua (China) for Mao.

Almost 2 trillion cigarettes are sold every year, at prices as low as 1.50 yuan ($0.20) for a pack of 20, complete with a discreet warning on the side of the box that says "Smoking is harmful to your health." The government estimates 1 million Chinese die smoking-related deaths annually projected to double by 2020.

Beijing has had some smoking restrictions since 1995, when the municipal government prohibited lighting up in large public venues such as schools, sports arenas and movie theaters.

The new rules, which were announced in state media Saturday, expand the scope to include restaurants, bars, hotels, offices, vacation resorts and all indoor areas of medical facilities, according to a draft released earlier this year.

"The whole world will be watching Beijing, because its success means a big step toward the success of the whole world, given the large smoking population of China," said Cui, an associate professor at the Capital University of Medical Sciences in Beijing.

Organizers of the Aug. 8-24 Olympics have said they want smoking bans in all hotels serving athletes and all competition venues and restaurants in the Olympic Village by June.

Last October, Beijing banned smoking in the city's 66,000 taxis, threatening drivers with a 200 yuan ($28) fine if they are caught.

After a branch of the Meizhou Dongpo restaurant chain went smoke-free, revenues dropped by 5 to 8 percent in the first two months, but picked up as word got out to nonsmokers, said deputy manager Guo Xiaodong.

"Smoke-free restaurant: A mountain forest in the city," say posters in the restaurant. A man with a pack of cigarettes by his plate grumpily relents when his friend reminds him he can't light up.

"Some customers didn't understand why there was a ban in a restaurant, a public place. They think cigarettes and liquor can't be separated," Guo said.

In 2005 China ratified World Health Organization rules that urge it, within three years, to restrict tobacco advertising and sponsorship, put tougher health warnings on cigarettes, raise tobacco prices and taxes, curb secondhand smoke, prohibit cigarette sales to minors and clamp down on smuggling.

"The problem is that there are commercial interests that make it hard," said Sarah England, who heads the tobacco control department of the WHO's Beijing office. She means the state-run tobacco industry, which made $53.6 billion last year, up 25 percent from a year earlier.

Meng Qiliang, a vice governor in the tobacco-rich southern province of Guizhou, is willing to try kicking his pack-a-day habit.

"I've been smoking since I was 26. It's hard to give up," said Meng, 50, taking a deep drag from the metallic blue filter of his cigarette.

But if push comes to shove? "I'll just eat some chocolate instead.