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Is Hangzhou Reversing Its Smoking Ban?
 
(LI SHIGONG)

Hangzhou, the provincial capital of east China's Zhejiang Province, has proposed deleting from a draft smoking ban references to a "full" smoking ban in "all indoor public places and offices" and instead has suggested the creation of indoor smoking areas. This has stirred debate and led to public outcry.

Some lament that this amendment is against the growing trend in the country's efforts to push forward smoking bans in indoor public places. The government is supposed to put people's health ahead of local revenues from tobacco sales, they insist.

The Chinese Association on Tobacco Control, think tanks related to public health and others wrote a letter to the city's top legislature, saying that the latest move was like "putting a car in reverse."

However, not everyone sees it as regression since the city has never actually implemented a smoking ban. They argue that the latest plan is just an amendment to a draft meant for public consideration. In addition, some also point out that a full ban on indoor smoking needs to be imposed slowly.

Public Health Priority

Zhu Changjun (Beijing Youth Daily): At a time when more and more cities are setting up laws and regulations to ban indoor smoking, Hangzhou's latest amendment to its previous full ban on indoor smoking is unexpected and against the overall trend.

Maybe the city has justifiable reasons for amending its original smoking ban since it takes time to implement a full ban. In any event, an indoor designated smoking zone will still mitigate the harm caused by smoking.

However, scientific evidence shows that indoor smoking rooms will not prevent people from being harmed by second-hand smoke, even if there is a special advanced ventilation system. Some argue that to totally ban indoor smoking would increase the difficulty or resistance to pushing forward a total smoking ban, but no one can guarantee that indoor smoking room will reduce the difficulty. It may actually trigger disputes because of the vague government attitude toward banning smoking altogether.

In fact, a full indoor smoking ban is more about an attitude and determination than regulation. Once the restrictions on the ban are relaxed, it will send a negative signal to society and previous achievements risk being undone.

So far, 18 cities including Beijing and Shanghai have approved non-smoking legislation, covering 10 percent of the country's population. A positive trend will develop as more and more cities join the list, but Hangzhou's proposed amendment is undoubtedly a reversal.

In reality, Hangzhou's move reflects the bigger picture of China's overall tobacco control efforts. Despite smoking ban laws and regulations in public places in many cities, a national tobacco control regulation has yet to be developed, although the drafting and revision work has gone on for more than three years. Therefore, it is not totally surprising to see a reversal on strict smoking bans at the city level.

Wang Changlian (Qilu Evening News): Currently, at least 20 cities around the country have issued local regulations to ban smoking in public places, while some have even achieved the goal of a full ban on indoor smoking, like Beijing and Shanghai. Against this backdrop, Hangzhou's planned change to its full ban is like "reversing a car."

Around the country, the pace of smoking control is slow and efforts, including law enforcement, are not as efficient as expected. The difficulty of pushing forward a ban on indoor smoking in public places is hard to overcome. Meanwhile, the number of smokers in China keeps going up. People mostly lack awareness of and enthusiasm for smoking control. This has partly resulted from backward legislation and weak enforcement of relevant regulations and laws, particularly the fact that there is no national smoking control law yet.

As for local regulations, they are limited and inconsistent from one area to another. Thus, we need a strong national-level smoking ban, which is specific in stipulations and tough in punishment. More important is the strengthening of management and control on tobacco production and sales. Sometimes, it's necessary to sacrifice tobacco revenues and so-called local economic achievements for the sake of public health.

Wang Qi (eastday.com): Recently, we have witnessed efforts in many cities to implement full smoking bans in public places, which have already become popular among a population whose awareness of smoking control keeps rising. Hangzhou is actually one of the forerunners in terms of smoking bans across the country. However, its plan to remove references to a "full" smoking ban in "all indoor public places and offices," and instead set aside indoor smoking areas, raises the question: Why has Hangzhou decided to dilute its smoking ban?

It is true that it is difficult to implement a full smoking ban in all indoor public places, as it covers large areas and affects a large number of people. However, the difficulties alone do not justify the plan to retreat from the strict smoking ban since it is closely related to public health. Resistance to a full ban on smoking in indoor places is inevitable. Smokers claim that their rights are being compromised, but if their rights are guaranteed, then non-smokers' rights to health are being breached.

A more vehement backlash, however, will come from the tobacco industry. After all, if a full smoking ban is strictly enforced, its interests will be severely affected. Thus, it is always interfering with tobacco-related legislation with excuses such as local fiscal revenues, among others. The government must carefully consider this problem. Although "tobacco finance" can bring some economic benefits, what is often hidden are the huge medical expenditures caused by smoking-related diseases.

A full ban on smoking in indoor public places is already an irreversible tendency across the country. Hangzhou, as a typical environmentally friendly city, should not retreat from its strict ban on smoking; it should implement its original ban against all odds, living up to its nickname of "paradise on earth."

Taking it slow

Wei Yingjie (Qianjiang Evening News): To label Hangzhou's practice "reversing a car" generates misunderstanding among the public. The fact is, Hangzhou issued two drafts on smoking control in January and May for public consideration and comments. The widely-reported full smoking ban in indoor places is the January draft, not any current smoking control regulation in practice. Therefore, the so-called "reversing a car" description is groundless.

Currently, some cities like Beijing and Shanghai have implemented a full ban on indoor smoking. This is undoubtedly an achievement, but these bans have also encountered many obstacles. For example, although the ban has been in place for more than a year in Shanghai, complexes such as commercial buildings are still plagued by the most complaints of smoking in public places, particularly at fire exits and in bathrooms. Therefore, wouldn't it be better to set aside an indoor smoking room in such big public places?

Of course, a full ban on indoor smoking is an objective that is worth fighting for, and in the implementation of tobacco control regulations, this is the trending direction. However, this dream will not come true overnight. We have to pay heed to cities' actual level of economic and social development and their relevant facilities. In Hangzhou for example, after many years of efforts, smoking control in public places has finally made great headway, while more and more smokers have started to avoid smoking in public places like offices and shopping centers. However, a full ban on indoor smoking may still require more time.

Most likely, Hangzhou made the amendment to its smoking ban draft based on this reality, hoping that the regulation can be more effectively implemented. This is also the situation in terms of smoking control across the country. We can't be so naïve as to expect that indoor smoking can be banned in all public places based on a certain regulation or law. We should be objective toward Hangzhou's latest amendment to its smoking ban draft. The plan for a full ban on smoking in all indoor places should be pushed forward at a scientific, stable and feasible pace.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

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