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Smoking in China

This Letter from Asia comes from Beijing. Here's a fact of dubious distinction about China: One in three cigarettes smoked in the world is smoked here. This is not a country of smoke-free zones, or in most cases, of even smoke-free parts of restaurants.

Imagine the frustration of people like Dr. Henk Bekedam of the World Health Organization. He's fighting for good health. "If anyone lit a cigarette behind you in a bar or restaurant and you look over your shoulder and try to indicate 'Please, why are you doing this? I'm enjoying my meal!" No effect," says Dr. Bekedam.

While China happily lights up, the rest of the world is snuffing out. In America, places like California and New York City have laws so smoking is no longer allowed in restaurants or bars, and it doesn't stop here. Jump across the Atlantic to a fast growing number of European countries banning smoking in public places - even France, home to the smoky Paris bistro.

What blocks such moves in China is an insidious alliance between smokers and the government, which monopolizes cigarette production and makes millions on taxes. In some provincial areas, the money coming from cigarette taxes make up half the local government revenue.

To which, Dr. Bekedam has an answer that is both logical and lucrative. "If you, for instance, increase the price by ten percent, on the average, 5.6 percent of people will stop smoking. And that's very good," says Bekedam. "That's even good news for the Minister of Finance who will still get his revenue, while there are fewer people smoking."

But here's the saddest reality in this smoker-driven society. "Fifty percent of the children are being exposed to passive smoking," says Dr. Bekedam. "Fifty percent, and that's a bit of an unfair start. A lot of them are at home. Fairly sad figures."

There is a window of opportunity coming. China says the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be smoke free. It has anti-smoking advocates already pushing for more. According to Dr. Bekedam, "We are also aiming, of course, not for the 18 days it will be smoke free. We hope that it will start changing behavior forever."

But when a whole country is addicted to the deadly combination of nicotine and tax revenue, it's not easy to kick the habit.

By Barry Petersen