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World

China Has To Kick Smoking Habit Or Health Care Costs Could Be Huge

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

About 1 in every 3 cigarettes smoked in the world is smoked in China. That's according to the World Health Organization. This week, China's government proposed regulations that would ban smoking in all indoor, public places. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The numbers are pretty scary. More than 300 million Chinese smoke. More than twice as many are affected by secondhand smoke. And 1.2 million die each year from smoking. Xu Guihua is deputy director of the China Association of Tobacco Control, a state-backed advocacy group.

XU GUIHUA: (Speaking Chinese).

LANGFITT: Smoking has 700 years of history in China, she says. In addition, for so many years, people have been used to smoking anywhere, without restrictions. China has made some progress since the '90s, banning smoking on trains and in taxis. But clouds of smoke continue to fill restaurants across the country. Xu says the new regulations call for fines for indoor smoking and ban tobacco advertising.

GUIHUA: (Speaking Chinese).

LANGFITT: This is the law that we've been expecting for many years, she says. And it's finally coming. China's parliament still has to approve the regulation. And even if it does, there are questions. Will they be enforced, and will they work?

In a Shanghai pool hall, where an ashtray sits on every table, opinions vary. Li Dong is shooting eight ball. He works in the money lending business and smokes up to five cigarettes a day.

LI DONG: (Through translator) Banning smoking is good, but we can't quit. There are some things you simply can't change. Smoking is like drinking water. It's just like drinking tea.

LANGFITT: Wan Chenghui, Li's colleague, goes through a pack of cigarettes every two days. He says smoking is part of the social fabric.

WAN CHENGHUI: (Through translator) Chinese etiquette is like this. If you smoke, regardless of whether the other person smokes or not, you must hand out a cigarette. It's a way to show politeness.

LANGFITT: But Wan thinks fines could change behavior.

CHENGHUI: (Through translator) If this becomes a law, people won't smoke in public spaces. This policy will help us quit.

LANGFITT: Reducing smoking will cost the government tax revenue. The tobacco industry contributed more than $130 billion in taxes last year. But Xu, from the anti-tobacco association, says China no longer has much choice - better to lose tax revenue now than pay crushing health care bills later. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.