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Dousing China's puffing dragon

China has launched a campaign for nonsmokers and against nicotine addiction. Despite a lack of enforcement of current smoking bans and the government's addiction to tobacco revenue, China might become a model for other countries.

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    Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan, a singer and Chinese ambassador for tobacco control, arrive in Sri Lanka last September.
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Soon after Xi Jinping became China’s new leader two years ago, the ruling Communist Party told officials to set an example by not smoking in public and to not hand out cigarettes as gifts. It turned out to be the first of many more attempts to curtail smoking in China, the world’s largest maker and consumer of tobacco.

Mr. Xi, whose wife has been China’s “ambassador for tobacco control” since 2009, has lately stepped up his campaign. The city of Beijing will ban smoking in all indoor places starting this June. And a draft regulation by the powerful State Council would do the same nationwide as well as put limits on outdoor smoking and restrict advertisements that glorify tobacco use.

In addition, Xi began to chip away at the government’s heavy interest in the lucrative tobacco industry. Some 5 million tobacco farmers were told in early January that the price of their leaves would no longer be fixed but be set by the market.

Xi, who has launched several morality campaigns in the name of Confucian-style virtues, is up against powerful forces. The government still relies on tobacco sales for about 7 percent of its revenue. Most sales are made by the state-owned China National Tobacco Corporation. It manufactures more than 2.5 trillion cigarettes a year – or close to half of all cigarettes sold in the world. Kicking this revenue addiction will take a wholesale adjustment of a major industry and its official overseers.

Just as difficult would be enforcement of new nonsmoking rules. The few cities that now have bans find the public largely ignores them. China is home to a third of the world’s smokers, and most of them, or 288 million, are men. Only 13 million women smoke out of a population of more than 1.3 billion. Although the campaign is largely driven by concerns over smoking as a major public health issue, many of those campaigning for bans on behalf of nonsmokers are women.

About 28 percent of adult Chinese are regular smokers, which is high but not as high as in a few other countries. But what really concerns officials is that 11.2 percent of boys ages 13 to 15 are smokers. Such high levels of addiction do not fit into Xi’s promise to create a “China dream,” or a country that can become a model for the world.

Many countries have found a way to create a social momentum against nicotine addiction and smoking in public. Such a mental shift, which requires a desire for a life free of addiction, may have already begun in China. It could yet be an example for other countries.

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