Thursday, March 6, 2014, 08:14
Smoke-free two sessions drive making progress
By Shan Juan

Anti-tobacco effort starts from top, Shan Juan reports in Beijing.

Smoke-free two sessions drive making progress
Cui Yongyuan, a CPPCC member, stands near a sign that reads ‘Thanks for not smoking’, as he waits to be interviewed. (Jiang Dong / China Daily)
Smoke-free two sessions drive making progress

Huang Jiefu says he will stop anyone from smoking inside venues for the two sessions, the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

“I will definitely ask them to stop,” said Huang, a CPPCC member.

“In fact, I don’t even have to ask them to stop. Instead, I will tell them that I am the president of the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control,” he said.

In February, the association and seven other non-governmental organizations wrote to organizers of the two sessions, calling for a smoke-free environment for the deputies and delegates.

They also suggested that the ban should not only apply to smoking indoors, but to open areas used as access points by large numbers of people.

In addition, they asked that smoking-related utensils, such as ashtrays, be removed from the venues and that tobacco companies should not be allowed to give cigarettes as gifts to deputies and political advisers.

In response, the CPPCC’s Bureau of Letters and Calls promised to integrate the smoke-free concept into the “new meeting” ethos it is attempting to foster this year.

“That’s promising and very positive feedback,” said Huang, who added that controls on smoking should not be too heavy-handed.

“Of course, smokers can smoke in the designated areas, but non-smokers have the right not to be harmed by secondhand smoking,” he said.

Shin Young-soo, the World Health Organization’s regional director for the Western Pacific, urged stronger steps to combat tobacco-related illnesses, both now and in the future. “It’s about life and death,” he said.

China, the world’s largest tobacco producer and consumer, has more than 300 million smokers, or 28 per cent of the adult population, according to WHO estimates. The country sees more than 1 million tobacco-related deaths per year, while passive smoking kills around 100,000 people annually.

To reverse that situation, the country needs to take urgent action to meet its obligations under the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Huang said.

“The issue and implementation of the December notice is an important step in the process. Tobacco is already taking a devastating toll on the health service, the economy and society. If we don’t act now, the 1 million-plus deaths that result from smoking-related diseases every year will rise to 3 million by 2050,” he added.

Shin urged the introduction and implementation of a national smoke-free law to cover China’s 1.3 billion citizens. “Achieving that would be a watershed moment for tobacco control, not only for China but for the entire world,” he said.

Promising feedback

Wang Longde, a former vice-minister of health who has been an NPC deputy for six years, regularly proposed tougher controls on tobacco-related products at the annual meetings but eventually became discouraged.

“The government departments’ responses to my previous proposals didn’t satisfy me,” he said. “The replies were always along the lines of: ‘We are deeply concerned and more research work is planned’.”

Wang also served as director of the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association, one of the NGOs involved in the letter requesting a smoke-free two sessions. “The feedback this time is promising, even without any specific measures,” he said. “I have seen fewer deputies smoking in public at this year’s meetings, especially after the milestone notice issued on Dec 29 by the CPC’s Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council, that required officials to take the lead in making public areas smoke-free,” he said.

Huang believes that the December notice — which stipulated that smoking would be prohibited at all public activities held by the government or the Party — was the top leadership’s strongest ever commitment to tobacco control.

While shooting a public service announcement produced by China Daily, he joined a number of political advisers and deputies to chant the slogan, “A smoke-free two sessions and a healthy China.”

“That’s just the first step. A smoke-free China is the ultimate goal,” Wang said, adding that the health risks associated with tobacco, scientifically proven worldwide, have gradually been accepted by the nation’s top decision-makers.

Anthony Wu, a CPPCC member who was until recently chairman of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, said that in his experience the situation regarding tobacco control on the mainland has improved over the years.

“When I first became a political adviser in 1998, some members smoked openly at the meetings,” he recalled.

Last year, Wu joined a group of political advisers, most of them from the CPPCC’s Medical Specialty Committee, to write a joint letter to the organizers of this year’s two sessions requesting the removal of block ash buckets from the east gate of the Great Hall of the People. “To my surprise, they heeded our suggestion immediately and took away the buckets,” he said.

Raising awareness

Although the anti-smoking drive is making headlines at this year’s two sessions, the efforts to impose a ban at the Great Hall of the People began in 1988 during the first session of the 7th NPC. A delegate from Guangzhou, the Cantonese opera singer Hong Xiannu, asked China’s then-leader Deng Xiaoping to stub out his cigarette. Deng politely complied with Hong’s request and shortly afterward the ashtrays were removed from the Great Hall of the People.

In 1996, the then-premier Li Peng banned the sale of cigarettes in the iconic building, thus bringing into effect Beijing’s first ban on smoking in public places on May 15 that year.

However, “that fact wasn’t well known among many Chinese, including government officials, until recently,” Wang said. Even worse, he added, “Smoking has long been deemed a social activity in China.”

The annual legislative and political advisory sessions can serve as good opportunities to raise public awareness, while the two sessions will be the first real test of the December notice, he added.

This year, both venues for the meetings and the delegates’ hotels are displaying notices announcing the smoking ban. Ashtrays have also been removed.

A waitress surnamed Liu at Beijing’s Tiantai hotel said although the management hadn’t instructed her to stop deputies smoking indoors and the hotel had not displayed “no smoking” signs in the rooms, she hadn’t seen anyone smoking in the hotel reserved for NPC deputies from Shaanxi, Jiangxi, and Jilin provinces. 

Meanwhile, at a nearby hotel, an NPC deputy from Yunnan province smoked a cigarette in his room while being interviewed. “I feel terrible when I can’t smoke during the meetings,” he said.

NPC deputy Chen Zhimin said she welcomed a smoke-free two sessions. “I haven’t seen any deputies smoking in the hotel so far this year and I hope that will become the norm in the future. It helps the environment and public health,” she said, adding that smoking is only allowed in an open space outside her hotel.

Wu Yiqun, deputy director of Think Tank, an NGO committed to greater controls on tobacco and smoking, said: “A clear definition of designated smoking areas is helpful in better implementing a smoking ban.”

The new norm

Wang noted that hospitals, schools, and the offices of the top health and education authorities are now smoke-free zones. “Other departments are welcome to follow up and pass on the healthy message,” he said. “Starting from these two sessions, the new norm will spread to other government working establishments.”

Zhong Nanshan, an NPC deputy from Guangdong, said strong government commitment is key to successful tobacco control in China.

According to Wu Yiqun, more key measures are needed, including graphic health warnings on cigarette packs and raising the tax paid on cigarettes. The retail price of tobacco products should also be raised, she added.

China’s implementation of the WHO framework is primarily led by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees the State Tobacco Monopoly Bureau, or the China National Tobacco Corporation.

Wu said it would be better if responsibility for the implementation were to be placed in the hands of healthcare professionals to promote more effective control of tobacco products.

“The top health authority would be a better fit for this leading position,” she said.

Shin from the WHO called on China to “overcome ‘competing interests’ to enforce stronger tobacco control policies and measures”.

Contact the writer at shanjuan@chinadaily.com.cn