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Sieren's China: Beijing cracks down on lighting up

A new smoking ban has been in effect in Beijing since June 1. It's a risky government experiment with potentially high rewards, DW columnist Frank Sieren writes.

China's government has taken a clear stand: Large no-smoking banners have been adorning the famous birds nest, Beijing's Olympic stadium, since early June. To celebrate the June 1 beginning of the ban in the capital, women came together and sang songs against smoking.

Smoking is prohibited in offices, malls, restaurants, bars and airports. Lighting up is also banned in many public squares and on the grounds of several schools and hospitals. Apparently, the government feels strongly enough these days to push such an unpopular measure through.

Frank Sieren. (Photo: Frank Sieren)

DW columnist Frank Sieren

It is so unpopular because, unlike elsewhere, there is no large group of people vocally bothered by smokers and secondhand smoke. On the contrary.

Earlier attempts to enforce smoking bans have failed. Sure, no-smoking signs have been popping up all over Beijing for a while now. But, frequently, there's a garbage can with an overflowing ashtray right next to them. So far, the smoking ban was treated like many other rules in China are: Fishing isn't allowed here? Even more reason to fish right here. I mustn't drive on this side of the road? Then that's what I'll do! Everyone here knows that rules can be circumvented.

Anti-smoking police

The masses aren't ready to give up smoking yet. That's why the government has now upped the ante. Violations of the law are punished by a fine of up to 200 yuan (28 euros/$32). To make sure people respect the law, 1,000 police officers supposedly patrol the streets specifically seeking out smokers.

Additionally, the health department has established a hotline where people can call in to report companies that are violating the ban. The fine for businesses lies at 10,000 yuan and is considered a heavy incentive for companies and institutions to participate. Aside from the obligatory advertisements on the state's CCTV, there is also an official WeChat account that encourages Beijing residents to denounce smokers by taking photos or videos of them with cigarettes and uploading the material online.

The new smoking ban is important for the government: If the Chinese keep lighting up like they they do now, the country's health costs will explode. More than 1 million Chinese die of smoking-related diseases annually.

One-third of the world's lung cancer patients are from China. Three hundred million people smoke in China - that's 22 percent of the population. In 2012, more than half of all men lit up daily. Among women, the number was much smaller, with only 3.3 percent having a regular smoke last year. However, the number of women has increased in recent years, though the general numbers are decreasing. In 2014, one in three cigarettes lit in the world was sparked in China.

Campaign's success not measurable yet

With these numbers, it's no surprise that President Xi Jinping has not just put fighting corruption and smog on his agenda, but also the battle against smoking. How successful his party is with this endeavor will be tested when it comes to extending the smoking ban to all of China.

What might work as a pilot project in Beijing is facing opposition in the countryside. Farmers already feel that politicians have neglected the hinterlands - and now they want to take away cigarettes on top of that? That could send the farmers to the barricades.

They would have a powerful ally in the cigarette industry. China National Tobacco alone makes one in three cigarettes in the country. The number of jobs in the industry is staggering: 3.6 million farmers, 4 million retailers and another half a million workers are connected to the production of cigarettes.

The lobby is very strong. In 2013, the state tobacco industry made 956 billion yuan in taxes and profits for China. It will be very reluctant to give this money up.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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