The forthcoming government ban on smoking at all indoor public venues goes into effect on May 1 and with this ban, China joins a growing list of countries, ranging from Bhutan and Bahrain, to India, Russia, the US and beyond, that have enacted some form of official ban on tobacco use.
This should be welcome news for long-suffering non-smokers, but as we’ve already pointed out, conventional wisdom casts doubt over how, exactly, such a ban would be enforced (venue owners, for now, would bear the brunt of fines) in a land where roughly a quarter of the population lights up on a regular basis, half of all male doctors partake, over 500 million suffer from respiratory ailments due to second hand smoke and more than 1.2 million people die from smoking related ailments each year. Add to the fact that the last round of smoking bans during the Olympics in 2008 were announced and promptly ignored (save for in cabs) in most public spaces, and it’s difficult to believe that this new smoking ban will have much of an effect in the near future.
For non-smokers, however, the good news is that studies have shown smoking bans are effective – an opinion piece in The Guardian cites a 2003 British Medical Journal study on smoking bans in workplaces, which combined results from the United States, Germany, Canada and Australia and led the researchers to conclude that “workplace smoking bans reduced the numbers of smokers by about 4 percent” and the number of cigarettes consumed per person by about “1.3 a day on average.”
But, of course, such efficacy hinges on consistent and reasonable enforcement. And in the bigger picture – namely, China – these encouraging statistics are dwarfed by the sheer immensity of the smoking population and a critical lack of public awareness of just how harmful cigarette smoking can be (the fat businessman who thinks nothing of sauntering into a crowded elevator with a lit cigarette and my neighbors who habitually smoke in the unventilated hallway next to our front door and daughter’s bedroom come to mind).
Public awareness campaigns can be a mixed bag as well. Studies have indicated differing reactions to cigarette warning labels based on the viewer’s perceptions of self-esteem (the lower the self-esteem, the less effective the warning), and likewise, smoking in movies has been shown to exert an undue influence on smoking behavior in kids, even more so than from their parents and peers.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that a sea change in the public’s perception of smoking has occurred in many countries – particularly in North America and Europe – all spurred on by a consistent and persistent barrage of public service announcements, anti-smoking education (from very early on) and legislation. This fundamental shift hasn’t occurred overnight in these countries, nor should the same be expected of China.
But if the aim is to make dramatic cuts from the estimated RMB 252 billion a year in health care costs attributed to smoking, it’s going to take a hell of a lot of time, money and effort – all of which begs the question: Who, exactly, will actually supervise, enforce and abide by all this? I’m not holding my breath that it will be the venues.