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China's double-edged message on smoking

In the Forbidden City, perhaps China's best protected cultural site, foreign tourists could be forgiven for not understanding the wooden plaques that state in English, "No Burning."

But these no-smoking signs, also printed with Chinese characters, have a similar effect on local visitors to the imperial complex: none. When asked why he smokes in a supposedly smoke-free zone, a Forbidden City worker merely laughs as he pushes a wheelbarrow across the cobblestone palace grounds.

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In the past few years, several Chinese cities have experimented with smoking bans in government buildings and on public transport.

Although Beijing's government initially backed up the new rules with antismoking police, the enforcers have since seemed to vanish like a puff of smoke. Signs scattered throughout Beijing that were to herald a path toward an expanding cigarette-free environment have in some instances been converted into makeshift ashtrays.

Gaining far more followers are the neon advertisements that flicker like miniature beacons for Chinese who frequent trendy shops, cafes, and nightclubs. Targeting young, upwardly mobile youths, teams of girls peddle a product whose popularity is exploding, two decades into China's market reforms - cigarettes made by American, British, and Japanese tobacco titans.

"The race of foreign cigarettemakers into China reminds some of us of Britain's waging the Opium War to protect its right to sell opium to the Chinese [150 years ago]," says a student at Beijing University.

Yet it's the Chinese government that takes the lion's share of profits from the growing tobacco industry, and some antismoking activists here complain that Beijing is more interested in preserving its profits than the health of its people.

The China National Tobacco Corp. and the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration together dominate the industry in production, marketing, regulating cigarette sales, and controlling imports. The two groups say they have a staff of half a million, and provide orders for 10 million Chinese tobacco farmers.

ONLY in the last decade have some of China's leaders begun to consider smoking's negative economic and health effects. Mao Zedong and his successor, Deng Xiaoping, were both chain smokers and undoubtedly influenced youths in a land that for millennia practiced emperor worship. The current head of the Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, presided over the 10th World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Beijing in mid-1997, when he publicly backed a nationwide antismoking drive.

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Liu Yingli, a World Health Organization official in Beijing, says the group has begun working with the government to run antismoking education campaigns, including programs "aimed at warning middle school students not to start smoking." Public health officials say that Chinese, on average, begin smoking at 20 years of age, but even teenagers have acquired the habit.

The Chinese Patriotic Health Campaign estimates that "320 million Chinese now smoke, including 5 million who are below 18 years old," says spokeswoman Hu Peijin. Ms. Hu says that in 1991 the government began phasing in bans on broadcast advertisements for cigarettes.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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