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City's ban on smoking in public places still lacks teeth

By James Healy | China Daily | Updated: 2020-11-27 08:21

In the five years since Beijing's anti-smoking law took effect, winning praise from the World Health Organization, the law seems to have gone up in a puff (more like a cloud) of smoke.

Violators in indoor public places, particularly restaurants, have become increasingly brazen and insolent. They are confident, perhaps, that enforcement is not likely.

It's a pity that while dining in the capital city, you can still commonly be nauseated by someone at a nearby table puffing away without a care in the world for your health or theirs.

I have seen many violations, but three instances stand out, with just one of the encounters offering a ray of hope.

The first occurred when a friend and I stopped at a restaurant for a long-delayed chat and some good grub. I was famished.

I should mention at this point that my father was a chain-smoker who habitually puffed at the dinner table, as well as at restaurants, long before smoking in public places was outlawed in the United States. So I know all too well that nothing ruins the appetite or the taste buds' ability quite like wafting, unwelcome cigarette smoke.

Anyway, as my friend and I dined, I detected the strong odor of a cigarette. A man dining with his wife and child at the next booth was indeed smoking, albeit hiding the "cancer stick" under the table to remain undetected, flicking his ashes in a trash can.

Exasperated as I was over a ruined meal, I thought it more proper for the restaurant staff to tell the offender to extinguish his cigarette, so I called it to their attention. After all, a restaurant's failure to comply with the ban could result in a fine of up to 10,000 yuan ($1,520), versus the shrug-inducing 200 yuan an individual violator might face.

My politeness backfired, however. The offender lit up a second time, prompting restaurant staff to scold him anew, and even a third time in defiance, chiding and taunting me.

I had better results on a later evening when I was inside a tiny convenience store and a man waiting in line to scan his purchases was holding a smoldering cigarette.

I addressed him, but he just glanced at me perfunctorily and then looked away dismissively. I protested again and pointed to the no-smoking sign right in front of him. Again, he ignored me.

At that point I put him in the crosshairs of my phone camera, but just as I was about to snap a photo, he hastily opened the shop door and flicked his cigarette onto the sidewalk.

I assumed the man, who wore a restaurant uniform, did not want to risk a fine, since the penalty perhaps carries more weight with a wage earner than, say, a wealthy businessman who might scoff at a mere 200 yuan.

But therein lies the problem. The ban appears to be largely unenforced, and a mere 200 yuan fine is in many cases barely a deterrent anyway.

Beijing might need a multi-pronged solution.

First, enforce the law (or else you might as well rescind it). Smokers puffing away without a worry in restaurants and other public places is testament to the fact they don't expect punishment.

Second, increase the fine for individuals, and perhaps make the cost even higher for repeat offenders.

Third, hold the feet of restaurant and other proprietors to the figurative fire by making sure they aren't allowing customers to smoke. It is the establishments themselves that hold the key to the ban's effectiveness.

Beijing can only claim rights to China's toughest ban if and when the city shows it means business, and that defying the ban has real consequences.

But wait! Another episode I witnessed was encouraging. While I was dining one evening at an elegant hotel's restaurant/lounge in Beijing's Wangfujing shopping area, several businessmen gathered at a nearby table, and some of them promptly lit cigarettes.

A hotel worker passing the table noticed and alerted the manager, who briskly approached and reminded them that smoking was not permitted.

The cigarettes were snuffed, no defiance was displayed, and no resistance shown. You can see the difference a responsible restaurant manager can make.

The key to enforcement might be getting proprietors, who have the most at stake in terms of penalty, to ensure they protect all their customers, rather than acquiescing to an inconsiderate few.

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