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China's capital, Beijing, has put various indoor smoking bans in place over the years. Anyone who has been to the city can tell you most people ignore those rules. This month, Beijing launched a new enforcement effort, and health authorities' credibility is at stake. NPR's Anthony Kuhn decided to explore the city and sample the indoor air quality.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Chinese).
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Banners, posters and recorded messages all say it loud and clear - for the sake of the young patients, no smoking is allowed at the Beijing Children's Hospital. You might think that's just common sense. But until recently, it was not uncommon to see doctors, nurses and patients all smoking in Chinese hospital hallways, bathrooms and stairwells. Zhang Fushan is one of a handful of smokers who have retreated to a stand of trees about 50 yards from the main door of the hospital. He brought his child here for treatment.
ZHANG FUSHAN: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: "Smoking in the hospital now seems to be under control," he tells me. "Nobody dares to smoke inside." Under Beijing's new indoor smoking ban, fines for violators have been raised from $1.60 to $32. Inspectors have reportedly fanned out across the city to enforce it. I asked Mr. Zhang if he notices any difference. He points to the clear blue skies above us.
FUSHAN: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: "The air is much better," he says. "Quitting smoking helps to reduce the air pollution." Actually, most of Beijing's air pollution comes from car exhaust, not tobacco smoke. But Zhang suggests that there's a cultural shift underway. More smokers around him are trying to quit for health reasons, he says, and fewer of them now give cigarettes as gifts.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KUHN: The band seems to be half-heartedly enforced inside the bars of Sanlitun Street, where touts lure customers to drink, listen to music and watch female dancers. I spotted plenty of indoor smokers there last night. Thirty-year-old dancer Zhao Teng comes out for a smoke. I ask her whether the ban is working.
ZHAO TENG: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: "I guess it's up to people to control themselves," she says. "But sometimes, they can't help it." Asked if any inspectors have come to enforce the ban, she says, "there must be some around, but I haven't seen any yet." Yang Gonghuan is the former deputy director of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She says that the percentage of Chinese who smoke has gone down in recent years, but the total number of smokers has stayed about the same as the population has grown.
YANG GONGHUAN: (Through interpreter) The number of workers, farmers and cadres who smoke has not changed much. The decline in smoking is most obvious among intellectuals, teachers and doctors.
KUHN: Yang points out that China's powerful tobacco monopoly is lobbying to allow cigarette stores to advertise, which is illegal under the country's advertising laws.
GONGHUAN: (Through interpreter) There are 5.4 million places in China where tobacco is sold. If those places are allowed to advertise tobacco as well, then what's the point in having a ban on tobacco ads?
KUHN: Yang says she knows that American culture and attitudes towards smoking took decades to evolve. As for China's awareness, Yang says, there have been some false dawns before, but she's cautiously optimistic that this time it's the real thing. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.