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As Beijing corners market, a smoking ban can’t work

On May 1, the day a nationwide ban on smoking in public places came into effect, I was working in a small café near the Lama Temple when I noticed an ashtray had been placed on my table.

Turning away from my computer, I asked the café's owner if it would be alright to smoke.

"Of course," she said.

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When I told her about the new smoking ban, she said she wasn't aware. A group of young Chinese at a table next to me, listening in on our conversation, laughed out loud. Several of them were smoking.

China has some 300 million smokers -- the most in the world -- and people smoke pretty much everywhere: in elevators, public toilets, indoor basketball courts. There's a deeply entrenched smoking culture here -- cigarettes are often exchanged at business meetings -- and the risks of smoking are not widely known.

Beijing has tried to ban smoking in public places before, with little effect, and this time will likely be no different.

Cigarettes are big business in China, and the government has a direct stake in the tobacco industry. China National Tobacco Corp., a state-owned cigarette monopoly, is the world's largest tobacco company. In 2009, more than 7.5 per cent of government revenue, or $74.8-billion, came from taxes and profits related to tobacco, according to China Daily, a government-owned newspaper.

Many provinces depend on the tobacco industry: In Yunnan, tobacco accounts for almost half of government receipts.

In a recent informal survey of a dozen-odd restaurants, bars and cafés around town, almost all those I visited were in violation of the ban or had no intention of complying. Many hadn't heard of it.

"I don't know anything about a smoking ban," said the manager of a small restaurant selling steamed buns, soup and cold dishes on Nanhunan Road in Choayang District. "Even if I did know of the ban, I wouldn't dare ask the clients to stop smoking. What if they didn't eat here anymore?"

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That sentiment was echoed by the owner nearby Internet bar. "Around 60 per cent of the people who come to the Net bar smoke. Our business will be impacted if we don't let people smoke here."

The owner of my favourite hole-in-the-wall bar, which is about as smoky as they come, patted me on the shoulder when I ask him about the ban and said, "I know about it, but no problem, people can still smoke"

China's ambivalence to smoking comes at a price. Health care costs related to smoking are soaring. About 3,000 people die every day in China from smoking-related illnesses, according to the World Health Organization, and cigarette smoke contributes to four of the five leading causes of death.

Recent reports suggest the costs of smoking may already outweigh economic gains brought in by the tobacco industry. And an estimated 3.5 million Chinese will die each year from tobacco-related illnesses by 2030.

But for now establishments who want their customers to butt out are facing an uphill struggle. At Jing Wei Zhai, a well-known restaurant that serves up traditional Beijing fare, the woman at the front counter says her bosses have instructed the wait staff to stop clients from smoking if they see them light up.

"We'll try," she says, "but we don't know what to do if they refuse to listen. Some will. Some won't."

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Meanwhile, a customer is smoking at a nearby table. When asked if he's aware of the smoking ban, the man begrudgingly stubs out his cigarette. "Ok," he says, "I know."

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