Health & Medicine

Chinese leaders are told to kick the habit

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Credit:

Carlos Barria/Reuters

A man smokes next to a "No Smoking" sign in downtown Shanghai. Chinese leaders are now prohibited from smoking in public.

The Chinese government on Sunday got serious about its anti-smoking campaign. No more smoking in public places.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

This is a country with 300 million smokers. The idea is the government can change that, and needs to lead by example.

"Bureaucrats here are quite popular in a different way than they are in the United States," said Laurie Burkitt, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing. They "determine what cars and outfits are popular, and also what they might be smoking."

This isn't the first time China has tried to ban smoking. Government officials tried to impose restrictions in the early 1990s, but enforcement was lax.

"Many municipalities," said Burkitt, "including Beijing, have passed indoor smoking bans — but they haven't been enforced at all."

What makes it different this time around, she added, is the campaign has a "stamp of approval" from the very top.

President Xi Jinping is a former smoker who quit 20 years ago, Burkitt said. Many officials think it's time for China to join other countries around the world in reducing smoking rates.

Still, reducing smoking won't be without difficulty, even for the government. Burkitt said taxes on smoking and tobacco products represents more than six percent of the government's total tax revenue. "It's the world's largest consumer, largest producer of tobacco," she said. "And smoking has become more popular among women smokers than ever before."

That potential loss of revenue is a grave concern for Chinese leaders. Health officials are currently meeting with government authorities about various strategies to reduce smoking.

"In some countries, they place the onus on individuals, rather than businesses, to control this," she said.

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