|Students from Liaocheng University demonstrate the harm caused by smoking during a street performance in Shandong province in October. Zhao Yuguo / For China Daily|
As China eyes a national ban on smoking in public indoor areas, health and law experts say regional anti-smoking regulations lack the teeth to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke.
More than 10 Chinese cities currently have smoking control rules, all of which ban smoking in public indoor areas, said Wang Qingbin, associate professor with the China University of Political Science and Law.
"But implementation of the law is unsatisfactory, mostly because there is a lack of enforcement and awareness of the law," he said at a symposium held by Beijing-based tobacco control campaign ThinkTank and the Tobacco Control Office of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The municipal-level rules mainly target public businesses such as restaurants, Internet bars, hotels and movie theaters, but do not focus on individual smokers, he said.
Yang Jie, deputy director of the Tobacco Control Office, explained that the city ban is similar to other bans around the world that mainly target businesses instead of smokers.
Zhang Dafan, director of the Shangcheng district health inspection institute in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, said business owners who do not attempt to prevent smoking in their establishments are fined. Smokers, however, are warned on the first offense. A second warning prompts a fine.
Hangzhou enacted its ban against public indoor smoking on March 1, 2010. It has employed a public hotline service to deal with complaints or reports of smokers or businesses who ignore the ban.
Since then, it has issued 276 warnings and 94 tickets, mostly for businesses, Zhang said.
"It's hard to catch and fine the individual" because it's difficult to gather evidence against a smoker, he said.
If, for example, a smoker is reported through the hotline, that person will usually have left before inspectors arrive on the scene.
Yang Gonghuan, former deputy director of China CDC, said that effective law enforcement requires a broader system involving public supervision, surveillance, assessments, training of law enforcement and promotional campaigns.
"Currently, the bans on smoking have no teeth," Yang said, adding that even law enforcement bodies don't think smoking is a big deal.
She recommended improved public supervision, such as public hotlines to report offenses, and said that the "response and action of law enforcement to hotline reports should be regularly publicized to help raise public awareness".
She also highlighted the need for more manpower and financial support to enforce the rules.
In Shanghai, city officials have taken a different tack: empowering the public. Tang Qiong, deputy director of Shanghai health improvement office, said the office has recruited volunteers to help in its efforts to curb indoor smoking.
Though the volunteers can't enforce the law, they help with inspections of businesses and "high-risk" sites, she said.
"That has helped us to become more targeted in our enforcement efforts."
The volunteers, who are mostly retirees, are given transit vouchers for their inspection work.
From January to September, volunteers had reported 156 violations, 64 of which led to fines for businesses. Since the city enacted its indoor smoking ban, 248 fines worth more than 335,000 yuan ($55,000) have been handed out.
Zhang Jingdong, who heads the tobacco control office in Harbin, said Shanghai's innovations in enforcing the law are helpful. He also encouraged the public to take photos of indoor smokers.
"That would help with the collection of evidence for law enforcement," he said.
Harbin, in Heilongjiang province, enacted its own ban in May.
"Our regulation doesn't confront the tobacco industry and smokers directly but aims to protect non-smokers' health rights in public places," he said.
So far, "no substantial progress" has been seen, he conceded.
Currently, five out of six districts in the city have smoking control offices. He said channels for public supervision of public indoor smoking will soon be established.