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Coming slowly to 300 million Chinese puffers: smoke-free zones

Despite a new smoke-free zone at Peking University, China is making only half-hearted efforts to dissuade people from smoking.

By Staff Writer / December 15, 2011

Visitors enjoy the Great Wall in Mutianyu, China, on June 28.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Beijing

In the mad urban grind of Beijing, the green lawns and spreading trees of Peking University’s bucolic campus offer a rare respite. 

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They will soon offer something even rarer in China, if the university authorities get their way: a smoke-free zone.

The university this week banned smoking anywhere on campus – even outdoors – and outlawed the sale of tobacco in any of its shops. Students and teachers caught smoking three times will be ineligible for any prizes, and faculty members still on probation will not be hired, according to the new rules.

This is the latest in a string of generally half-hearted official efforts to dissuade people from smoking in China, the biggest consumer and producer of tobacco in the world, where more than 300 million adults smoke daily. Several million children under 15 have not been counted.

That figure has remained unchanged for nearly a decade, and government critics say the authorities are not doing enough to persuade smokers to give up. “The tobacco forces remain all-powerful,” Yang Gonghuan, deputy head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control told the UN World Health Organization bulletin last year.

That is partly because tobacco is a state monopoly in China, bringing in $93 billion in direct revenues and an additional $77 billion in tax – 7 percent of total taxes – in 2009, according to official figures.

It does not help that the agency responsible for warning citizens of the dangers of smoking, the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, works hand in glove with the state owned China National Tobacco Company, which produces and sells cigarettes. The two organizations share a website and a board of directors.

“They share the same staff who have conflicts of interest,” points out Wang Ke-an, founder of the Think Tank Research Center for Health Development. “It would be very helpful if the company was separated from the government.”

That so many people smoke in China – 57 percent of men smoking makes the habit normal here – is hardly surprising when you consider that fewer than 25 percent of Chinese know that smoking is harmful to their health, according to the WHO.

“Ordinary people are not aware of the risks they run by smoking, and not enough is being done to warn them,” says Sarah England, a tobacco expert with the WHO in Beijing.

That is clear from cigarette packs, whose simple warnings in tiny print that “smoking is harmful to your health, quitting smoking early is good for your health” fall well short of the standards that China adopted as legally binding when it signed on to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005.

Not only do tobacco companies shy away from of alerting consumers to the dangers of their product, they go out of their way to encourage youngsters to smoke, often with official sanction. Tobacco companies are allowed to sponsor schools, plastering their walls with slogans such as “tobacco helps you grow up and become accomplished,” and paying for school uniforms emblazoned with their logos.

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