China Sets May 1 Start for Smoke-Free Public Places

March 24, 2011

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Nowhere is the devastating toll of tobacco more evident than in China. Smoking kills more than one million Chinese people each year — one-fifth of the world total.

This week, China's Ministry of Health announced its strongest action to date to reduce this terrible toll: A new smoke-free policy that will prohibit smoking in indoor public places starting May 1.

The policy is not comprehensive — it will not apply to all indoor workplaces, as required by the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the international treaty China has ratified. But if effectively implemented and enforced, it will protect millions of Chinese from harmful secondhand smoke in a nation that consumes — and manufactures — more cigarettes than any other.

The health ministry's announcement says:

  • The smoke-free policy will apply to indoor public places including hotels, restaurants, bars, tea shops, entertainment and arts venues, sports stadiums and transportation waiting areas, including airports.
  • Business owners should post conspicuous no-smoking warning signs.
  • Outdoor smoking areas should not be set up where pedestrians walk.
  • Public places should not have cigarette vending machines.
  • The owners of public places should warn people that smoking is harmful to health — and hire staff to dissuade smokers from lighting up.

The health ministry's action shows growing awareness of tobacco's health and financial toll on China — and the urgent need for action.

There are about 300 million smokers in China — nearly a quarter of the country's population and by far the most of any country. China's death toll from tobacco is projected to triple in the coming decades, imposing a huge burden of death, disease and health care costs.

Enforcement mechanisms in the ministry's plan must be strengthened — fines are possible, but not spelled out in the guidelines.

Still, the world's largest country has now taken a long stride toward joining the global movement to protect everyone's right to breathe clean air.