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Clearing the air an arduous task

11-07-2011 08:39 BJT

BEIJING - Many restaurants are seriously polluted by tobacco smoke despite a national smoking ban, according to the results of an investigation by a Beijing-based non-governmental organization (NGO) released on Sunday.

"With no punishment for smokers in public places, many dining places are experiencing serious pollution," said Feng Yongfeng, a senior researcher with the NGO. According to the organization, known as Green Beagle, the concentration of PM2.5 in smoke-free restaurants in the capital, which indicates the density of the tiny airborne pollutants that travel deep into the lungs and damage the respiratory systems, is as high as 61.0 micrograms a cubic meter (ug/m3).

However, the figure for dining places open to smokers soars to 114 ug/m3, while the figure for restaurants with separate smoking sections is 103 ug/m3.

"The figures indicate the smoke-free restaurants are dangerous for sensitive groups and the ones allowing smoking are very unhealthy for all citizens," said Li Qiang, a professor with the Tobacco Control Office of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The figures are about 10 times higher than the international standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and are "very hazardous to the public", he added.

The investigators, mainly volunteers from Green Beagle, looked at 51 restaurants in the capital from May to September, including 25 restaurants with no limitations on smoking, 16 with smoking sections and 10 smoke-free restaurants.

No penalties

The report compiled from the investigation blames the lack of punishment for smokers in public places.

"As an environmental protection NGO, we're obliged to inform the public about the air quality they're exposed to," said Feng. "We also appeal to the government to come up with a feasible regulation against the harm of second-hand smoking to ensure our right to breathe fresh air."

Containing more than 7,000 chemicals with 69 carcinogens including tar and nicotine, the smoke usually leads to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and asthma.

"About 738 million non-smokers suffer from second-hand smoking and more than 100,000 of them die from smoking-related diseases every year," said Li. "Non-smokers living with smokers are at more risk from heart attack or stroke."

China banned smoking in indoor public spaces in May this year, including hotels, restaurants, theaters and waiting rooms at railway stations and airports, hoping to protect the health of the people in the world's biggest producer and consumer of tobacco products.

However, since there are no specific penalties for people who smoke in such places, the regulation, issued by the Ministry of Health, has little effect.

"The regulation issued in May only says owners should put up non-smoking signs at obvious positions and have staff try to persuade customers not to smoke if they light up," said Wang Qiuxia, researcher at Green Beagle. "Most persuasion is in vain without legislative assurance."

"Some smokers in the restaurants argue it's their right to smoke," said a waitress surnamed Lin at Saizeriya in Wudaokou. "You simply don't want to get into further trouble debating with them."

"The service personnel suffer the most from second-hand smoking," said Ji Yajie, director of the law office for tobacco control with the China University of Political Science and Law. "We can't enjoy our rights at the sacrifice of others."

Suo Chao, spokesman of the China Association of Tobacco Control, told the China Daily that smoking sections don't really ensure fresh air for non-smokers.

"Air flows," said Suo. "We can also judge from the figures from the report by Green Beagle that separating the smokers and non-smokers has little effect and only a thorough ban on smoking in indoor restaurants can ensure fresh air."

In response, the Beijing Municipal Health Bureau said although some restaurants do a poor job of prohibiting smoking, the general situation is "fine".

An official at the bureau surnamed Ma told the China Daily that the agency has been pushing legislation of a ban on public smoking. However, since the tobacco tax contributes a lot to the national economy, the process may take time.

Quitting tough

He also added that smoking has been part of the culture and a longstanding habit for many people. To quit is no easy matter.

Huang Jinrong, doctoral candidate with the Institute of Juridical Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also mentioned that the government is doing its work, but not enough.

Unlike other NGOs devoted to helping AIDS patients or fighting water pollution, there are few organizations dedicated to tobacco control, according to Feng.

Feng said they are pushing the government to provide up-to-date information to the public about indoor air quality.

"It takes effort to tackle the country's tobacco habit, especially given the vast profits it yields for the government," said Feng. "But that is the reason for our existence."

Editor:Zhang Jianfeng |Source: China Daily

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