During my time in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), I have noticed that “禁止吸烟” – or “No Smoking” – signs are at their best a polite suggestion, more often a pesky requirement posted simply as routine and mechanical procedure – also, people must admit, its design does create a lovely regulatory aesthetic. It seems common for people to overlook or ignore these postings. There’s no enforcement; they’re meaningless.
China’s consumes roughly one-third of the world’s tobacco, consumption fed by its roughly 300 million smokers, the supermajority of whom are men. In fact, it is estimated that 3 out of every 4 Chinese men lights up. Say it with me: wow.
In the mid-twentieth century, cigarette consumption was driven by national pride. The government-owned companies went so far as to explicitly link smoking to patriotism (“Consume your cigarettes! Support the Party! Support the revolution!”).
Chairman Mao Zedong is the PRC’s most famous nicotine addict and is commonly featurein photographs holding a cigarette between two figures.
In recent years, it seems that cigarette consumption – among men, in particular – has been propelled by 酒桌文化 – or “Drinking Culture.” Alcohol and cigarettes are used as a way to show respect, build relationships, and have a good old-fashion time. It is common to present expensive alcohol or cigarettes to superiors as a gift, and if you are offered a drink or a cigarette, it is quite rude to turn it down, as I learned from experience.
Curbing cigarette consumption in the PRC is a daunting task, but the government/Party seems up to the challenge. On May 1, 2011, the central government/Party leaders enacted a nationwide ban on smoking in all public places, including restaurants, bars, stores, and public transportation. It seemed like signs were posted everywhere.
Now, the one million renminbi question: can – and will – it actually be enforced? Can you curb the smoking habits of 300-plus million people? So far, I have been disappointed. Smoking still seems common in those enumerated public places, regardless of the aesthetically-pleasing government-issued non-smoking signs.
However, I also see signs of change. I see increasing numbers of non-smokers showing a sense of empowerment. I’m starting to hear, “请问，麻烦你灭掉你的烟，” – “Excuse me, please do not smoke” – more and more frequently. Just as promising, I see smokers listening and respectfully extinguishing their cigarettes.
So, will the law be effective? It will depend not on the government, but on the people. I’m crossing my fingers and holding my breath.
For more information on the PRC’s national smoking ban: http://www.npr.org/2011/05/01/135891311/no-joke-china-bans-smoking.
For more information on the PRC’s tobacco industry: http://www.npr.org/2011/02/18/133838124/china-dependent-on-tobacco-in-more-ways-than-one.