Time to ban public smoking and save lives

Updated: 2016-06-03 08:18

By Bernhard Schwartlander(China Daily Europe)

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The tobacco industry has corrupted discussions on a national law with superficially compelling but false arguments

Eighteen months ago, I was thrilled when, in the same week, Beijing city adopted a law to make all indoor public places 100 percent smoke-free and the State Council published draft national regulations to enact a ban on smoking in public places. Finally, I thought, China is getting serious about addressing a problem that kills two Chinese people every minute, and in doing so takes an enormous toll on China's health system and economy.

On World No Tobacco day, a year after Beijing's excellent smoke-free law came into effect, there is much to celebrate: enforcement has been strong, compliance rates good, public support extremely high, and residents are breathing easier as a result. Beijing has shown it can be done.

However, I'm sad to say progress on the national regulations has not been so positive. In fact, I'm bitterly disappointed. A range of very problematic loopholes in the draft have appeared: smoking would be permitted in individual offices, as well as other public places like restaurants, bars, hotels and airports. Not even hospital campuses would be entirely smoke-free.

Time to ban public smoking and save lives

Including these exemptions in national smoke-free regulations is a bad idea for several reasons.

First, they would be utterly contrary to the World Heath Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which China's state legislature ratified in 2005. The treaty is crystal clear that preventing exposure to carcinogenic secondhand smoke requires a 100 percent smoke-free environment. There is no safe level of exposure, so there can be no exceptions. Anything less than 100 percent simply will not work, so the current draft regulations will be about as useful for protecting health as a bucket with a giant hole in the bottom is for collecting water.

Second, a weak national law would be inconsistent with a 2013 joint notice by the Communist Party of China and the State Council that urged government officials to take the lead in promoting smoke-free public places. Exempting leaders' offices from the smoking ban would seem to create a culture of privilege while putting the health of others at risk.

Sadly, it's clear that the vested interests of the tobacco industry have been able to corrupt discussions on the national law with a series of superficially compelling yet completely false arguments, many of which we have heard before around the world.

Time to ban public smoking and save lives

For instance, the industry argues that a strong tobacco control law would hurt the economy. This is completely untrue. This law is about protecting the vast majority of Chinese people, who are nonsmokers, against the terrible harms of secondhand smoke. International evidence shows effective smoke-free laws are an economic plus: they reduce the enormous costs of tobacco use and secondhand smoke for individuals, businesses and society.

The industry is also arguing that enforcement will be difficult across China, so a lesser smoke-free law will be easier to enforce. Again, this is completely untrue. A smoke-free law full of loopholes will be more difficult to implement, as experience the world over has shown. Russia has good experience in enforcing its strong smoke-free law. The easiest law to enforce is one that is simple and understood by everyone.

There are 1 million reasons not to accept the tobacco industry's arguments: that's the number of people who are killed by their products in China every year. It would be a travesty if vested interests are allowed to wreck the possibility of a law designed to protect public health.

The exemptions that have appeared in the draft law, which are against the legally binding WHO framework, must be removed. If the law is adopted in its current form, I fear it would do great damage to China's international standing, just when Shanghai is preparing to host a major international conference on health promotion this year.

A strong national smoke-free law, however, would be one of the greatest steps forward for public health in China. And it would place the country among the world's leaders in standing up for the health of its people. Healthy China needs a strong, 100 percent smoke-free national law.

The author is the World Health Organization representative in China. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.