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LAST WORD: Wafting Away the Smoke
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Wafting Away the Smoke

By Mike Cormack

BT 201507 02 Last word smoking photoThe blue smoke curls around the restaurant, agitating my nostrils and yellowing the whitewashed walls. The smoke, in this instance, isn't from pollution, but from the group of four men smoking at their table. Cigarette butts are already splayed on the floor, and gritty-grey ash encircles them like noxious dandruff. I've seen people smoking at the table many times before, but these guys are even smoking while they eat, alternating between cigarette and laden chopsticks. There's a no smoking sign on the wall, but the wait staff are paying no attention. I dislike being awkward, I really do, but I hate people smoking while I eat. So I ask the waitress "Isn't this a no smoking restaurant?"€ and nod to the sign. She rolls her eyes at me forcing her to disrupt the restaurant's social harmony and asks the men to extinguish their cigarettes. They scowl at me but stub them out on a saucer.

The next time I go there for lunch, the no smoking sign has been covered by a drape. No more disruptions to social harmony.

BT 201507 01 Last word hlNew regulations in Beijing represent a significant tightening of the rules and punishments for smoking in public places - and with good cause. The numbers are truly alarming. Death rates from smoking in China are unparalleled, with nearly a million dying from smoking per year, a rate predicted to double by 2025. The country is, perhaps not surprisingly, the world's largest consumer of cigarettes, but the sheer volume is incredible - 38% of the world's total, more than the next four countries combined. In 2009, nearly 2.3 trillion cigarettes were smoked in China alone: if laid out tip to tip, they would stretch 161 million kilometres, or four thousand times round the Earth.. We're talking about a lot of cigarettes. Smoking is part of business and hospitality in China in a way that has long since disappeared in the West, with gold-tipped luxury brands and ornate packages part of the ceremonial business etiquette. As with any elite activity connoting exclusivity and wealth, the masses want a part of it, whether or not it's good for you. And so here we are now, with 300 million smokers in China - one third of the world's total -€“ though, curiously enough, this obscures a sharp gender differential, with 52.9% of men and just 2.4% of women smoking.

BT 201507 03 Last word smoking gettyThe new regulations are a substantial strengthening of Beijing's anti-smoking drive. From June 1st, smoking in restaurants, office and public transport was banned, as is smoking near hospitals and schools; cigarettes may not be sold in shops within 100 metres of primary schools and kindergartens. Fines for transgressions go up to 200 CNY, a significant increase on the previous, rarely-implemented10 CNY penalty. Repeat transgressors face naming and shaming on a government website, while businesses face fines of up to10, 000 CNY for allowing smoking on their premises. Implementation, like so much in China, has been patchy. On the first day of the new guidelines, 565 businesses were inspected to assess their compliance, with 147 deemed to have violated the new rules.

But perhaps more than this, the new rules also represent the determination of China's leadership to clean up the air, its culture, and its people. A heavily masculine business culture of smoke-filled rooms and expense-account bonhomie may have worked so far, but Chinese companies striving to go international will need a more enlightened attitude. Cleaning up the air will also have direct health benefits - at the moment it's estimated that 100,000 Chinese a year die from second-hand smoke. Similarly, with industry in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hubei area finally cleaning up its act, and pollution in 2014 at long last easing up, China may at last be embracing the joys of clean air and clean living.

Smoking seems to produce its own ash tinted sense of camaraderie. In almost every workplace I've seen, a distinct little band of smokers seem to form their own gang, through the choking blue smoke and yellowing walls. I know how it goes. Despite all the warnings and anti-smoking education I got in school, when I hit 14 I still joined my friends in sparking up, in a desperate attempt to look cool. And this is the problem with smoking. It takes a long time to take its toll, with yellowing fingers, emphysema and dirt-black lungs. The greatest deterrent is social disapproval, whether from your family and friends or your peers and colleagues. When Chinese businessmen start competing with each other on their health and well-being, we'll know that the anti-smoking campaign is on the right track.


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