by Xinhua writers Cheng Lu and Zhong Qun
BEIJING, March 12 (Xinhua) -- Chinese lawmakers called for speeding up legislation to ban smoking in public places at the ongoing annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), which will conclude on Thursday.
Ma Xu, NPC deputy and director of the institute of science and technology under the National Health and Family Planning Commission, submitted two proposals to the country's top legislature, asking to enact a law that would ban public smoking, and to add an item in the advertisement law to prohibit tobacco advertisements, sales promotion and sponsorships.
China is home to over 300 million smokers, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the world's smoking population. At least 740 million non-smokers in the country are subject to second-hand smoke, according to official statistics.
In a step toward creating a healthier environment, China has attempted to reduce smoking in public places by initiating a spate of legal and economic measures.
In 2003, the government signed the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which came into effect in 2006.
The FCTC required contracting parties to ban smoking in public areas, such as offices and public transport, reduce tobacco supplies and consumption, ban tobacco advertising and raise taxes.
The country's advertisement law formulated in 1994 banned tobacco advertisements in radio, film, TV, newspapers and magazines, and in four public areas, including sports venues and theaters.
In addition, the Chinese government has made tremendous efforts to prohibit public smoking by setting it as one of the goals for the 2011-2015 period.
Meanwhile, officials are not allowed to smoke in public areas, including schools, hospitals, sports venues and on public transport, according to a December circular from the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council.
But enforcement of these measures has been patchy on the local level, as governments rely heavily on the taxes paid by tobacco companies.
Myriad education and sports ads featuring tobacco products can be found, according to Shen Jinjin, an NPC deputy and director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Yancheng City in east China's Jiangsu Province.
While the consumption of high-end cigarettes has been largely reduced thanks to China's anti-corruption campaign, the mid- to low-end market has managed to attract even more consumers.
"This is a new phenomenon that can't be ignored in the fight against smoking," said Shen.
Experts attribute the worsening situation to the lack of national legislation on tobacco control in China, which allows tobacco consumption to remain unrestrained.
"It has been eight years since the FCTC took effect in China, but the country has failed to enact a law to ensure a non-smoking environment," Ma Xu said.
And the non-smokers, shrouded each day in acrid smoke, are increasingly impatient with the smoke-ridden environment.
A report on the dangers of tobacco use released by China's health authorities showed that people in nearly 88.5 percent of restaurants and 58.4 percent of government offices in the country were exposed to passive smoking in 2010.
According to a survey conducted by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in several cities, over 90 percent of people, including smokers and non-smokers, welcomed the smoking ban in public transport, schools and hospitals.
More than 80 percent agreed to prohibit smoking in meeting rooms and offices and about one in two smokers would like to quit smoking in restaurants and bars, the survey showed.
As urgency for change mounts, the Chinese government is striving to control tobacco use.
Since 2010, seven Chinese cities, including Harbin, Tianjin and Shenzhen, have passed local legislation to ban smoking in public spaces in line with the FCTC guidelines.
"Other cities could learn from them to gather experience for the country's introduction of a national law that bans public smoking," said Ma Xu.
Ma pointed out that the ban should be expanded to all advertisements, sales promotion and sponsorships in an explicit manner.
Aside from legislation, Shen Jinjin suggested raising taxes and retail prices of tobacco, which could lower its consumption among minors, young people and low-income earners.
Shen's view echoes that of Zhang Dayong, another NPC deputy, who said China should promote tobacco control via economic leverages.
Zhang, a professor at Beijing Normal University, said the country's tobacco tax only makes up about 40 percent of its retail price, and that there is still room for a tax raise.
Statistics revealed that tobacco tax rates in Myanmar, Thailand, India, Singapore, and Japan are 75, 79, 72, 64 and 61 percent of retail price, respectively.
Yang Gonghuan, former director of tobacco control at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed out that it is reasonable to pay 67 to 80 percent of retail price for tobacco tax in a country.
"A country has to treat smoking-induced health problems 20 years later at a price 2.8 times the tax it receives today," said NPC deputy Wang Longde, head of the China Preventive Medicine Association, citing research by the WHO.
Increasing tobacco taxes and retail prices could help ramp up national revenues and dash cigarette consumption, while the increased tax revenues could be used to promote anti-smoking efforts, Shen Jinjin said.
(Ni Yuanjin and Zhang Duo from Beijing contributed to the reporting)