Ineffective anti-smoking laws in China

NOTE: This is the UNEDITED version of an article that was published in the Shenzhen Daily on 25th May, 2015.

During the recent May Day holiday, I travelled to Guangzhou with my girlfriend. We were late in booking our train tickets so our trains departed from Shenzhen Railway Station in Luohu.

After a long trip on the metro, I was desperate to use the bathroom. When I went to walk into the bathroom, I was assaulted with the stench of tobacco and nicotine. About 5 people were openly smoking cigarettes in there, despite the numerous no smoking signs stating fines of between ¥50 and ¥500 for offenders.

Unfortunately, my Mandarin is not good enough do anything about it, so I had to hold my bladder until I was on the train.

This leads me to the point of this article – the enforcement of laws around smoking in Shenzhen, and around China as a whole, is incredibly lax. People will openly light up a cigarette without thinking about the consequences to others. 

In my office right now, I can see a no-smoking sign, yet on two occasions a teacher has lit up cigarettes. It is only when I complained to someone about it that he started going outside to have them. He still smokes in the office, because if I come into the office of a night or on a weekend when he is here, he will quickly make himself scarce to finish his cigarette.

I was in my girlfriend’s hometown in central Hunan during Chinese New Year, and the amount of smoking in her parent’s home was astounding to me. We went to a restaurant where there were no-smoking signs and people were still smoking there.

Clearly there is no appetite for change in China and I am coming for a Western standpoint. To give readers an understanding of what it is like in my country, smoking is banned inside ALL government buildings; public transport; airports and flights; vehicles with children in them, and enclosed public spaces (such as workplaces and restaurants). Tobacco products cannot be sold to ANYONE under the age of 18 years old. 

In my home province of Western Australia, smoking is also banned from all indoor areas of pubs, bars and nightclubs; outdoor eating areas; within 10 metres of a children’s playground or in a patrolled area of a beach in a patrolled swimming area. In fact, the only indoor places you are allowed to smoke are your own home and the high roller room of the only casino in my home state. Fines for smoking in the wrong place START from AU$200 (¥1000) and courts can issue fines as high as AU$20,000 (¥100,000) depending on what a person has done.

My point is that there are some very simple ways to reduce the rates of smoking in China. I do completely accept that tobacco makes up between 7 and 10% of China’s GDP but the health costs will be much higher in the future, as more people take up smoking, live longer and become a bigger drain on the health care system.

These are my suggestions for improving enforcement.

  1. Give police a higher wage – if you pay them more, they are less likely to accept a bribe, or it is going to need a much higher bribe to get them to ignore the crime.
  2. Increase the fines – fines of ¥50 – ¥500 is not sufficient to scare somebody out of doing something when a packet of cigarettes is so cheap. A fine needs to hit the hip pocket a lot harder, so let’s try something that will attract the attention of cigarette consumers – ¥500 – ¥5000 fines, with the courts being able to increase the fine if necessary.

I also have ideas for reducing the smoking rate in China.

  1. Introduce a law that sets an age for the purchase of cigarettes (and alcohol, but that’s a separate discussion) – once an age is set, people can use their government issued ID to prove their identity. Scanners can be purchased from official government sources to ensure that no fake IDs are being used. This way, the government knows who is purchasing cigarettes.
  2. Fines for those selling cigarettes to those they shouldn’t – starting at about ¥25,000
  3. Health warnings on cigarette packages – there are plenty of examples of those on the internet.

There are many ways smoking could be enforced then reduced in China. These are just my ideas.

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