Holding My Breath

Postcard from Shanghai, China

By now, China’s tremendous economics strides during the last decade are well known. Even though it’s only been two years since my previous visit to Shanghai, China’s progress is undeniable. In addition to having scores of new skyscrapers, the city is now also considerably cleaner. Granted, a gray haze still blankets the sky on most days, but large cities like Shanghai have made a concerted effort to reduce pollution and construct beautiful public parks amidst the downtown buildings.

Despite these laudable environmental improvements, however, China still needs to confront a problem that significantly lowers the quality of life of its citizens: People smoke almost everywhere.

People smoke in train stations and airports, in restaurants, in hotel rooms, and on street corners. Walking through the city, I find myself holding my breath every few minutes to avoid inhaling a cloud of carcinogens. In many public areas, it's the non-smokers, instead of the smokers, who have to seek refuge in specially designated areas. While taking the elevator, for example, I noticed that the 11-story hotel I stayed at has a special “smoke-free” floor. Shouldn’t this be the other way around?

What’s more troubling, however, is that few people seem to mind this rampant smoking. Despite the abundance of evidence documenting the ill effects of second-hand smoke, many people apparently still underestimate its danger. Recent surveys have shown that two-thirds of Chinese people think that smoking does “little to no harm,” while 60 percent do not know that smoking causes lung cancer, and 96 percent are not aware of the connection between smoking and heart disease.

It’s unlikely that smoking’s popularity, especially among Chinese males (nearly three-fourths of whom smoke), will wane anytime in the near future. A more realistic, yet equally urgent goal would be to safeguard the health of non-smokers by restricting smoking in public places.

Simply because the harmful effects of cigarettes aren't as immediate as a punch to the kidney or a bullet in the arm, many think that public smoking isn’t as dangerous. Opponents of public smoking bans also say that prohibiting smoking in private establishments is a violation of property rights and a smoker’s right to light up. After all, if objecting non-smokers don’t like it, they can just stay clear.

The prevalence of public smoking in China, however, deflates this argument. People can no longer choose to simply avoid going to places where people smoke, because so few of these smoke-free establishments exist. Moreover, people don’t always have the luxury of working in a smoke-free environment—these employees shouldn’t have to inhale cigarette smoke everyday in order to get a paycheck.

Fortunately, it appears that China has recently started to recognize the importance of restricting public smoking. The government is planning on a tobacco-free environment for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where smoking will be banned in all public transport and indoor workplaces.

Enacting a nationwide smoking ban in all public places is a sound policy that would benefit all countries, not just China. In the U.S., where only about 20 percent of adults smoke, the problem of second-hand smoke exposure is perhaps not as readily apparent as it is in China. Nevertheless, more states should follow the example set by California and New York and countries like France and England, where smoking is banned in most, if not all, public places. In addition to improving public health in that specific area, these bans raise awareness to the serious and often underestimated dangers of second-hand smoke and could inspire other countries to follow suit. The decision should be simple—countries owe it to their citizens and foreign visitors to protect their health.

Jimmy Y. Li ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a neurobiology concentrator in Leverett House. If it weren’t for the smoke, he’d spend all his time in dingy little Shanghai restaurants.


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