Beijing: China launched a ban on smoking in restaurants, bars and other indoor public spaces on Sunday but few expect it to have much of an impact in the tobacco-hooked country with more than 300 million smokers.
The nationwide prohibition is designed to bring China more in line with health regulations in developed countries but it faces a tough test in a nation where tobacco is deeply ingrained in the culture.
Offering a cigarette is a common greeting among Chinese men while lighting up in elevators, buses or even in hospital waiting rooms is routine -- highlighting the lack of public awareness about the health risks of smoking.
At a pub popular with Chinese and foreigners, a customer leaned against the bar smoking a cigarette as several waitresses stood nearby.
"I didn`t know," a surprised-looking employee surnamed Li said when asked about the smoking ban.
Many health experts have warned that China, the world`s largest producer and consumer of tobacco, faces a ticking health timebomb unless it curbs smoking, and the ban marks a significant move for the Chinese government.
The Ministry of Health guidelines say smoking will be banned in "indoor public spaces" and that cigarette vending machines cannot be located in public places.
However, state press reports have said offices and factories will not be covered by the ban, and it remains unclear whether it will be adequately enforced in bars, restaurants, and public transport.
"We can inform them about the regulation but if they insist on smoking we can`t do anything," Tian Rongrong, a waitress at a small restaurant, said.
But she believed Chinese people would gradually get used to the new rule.
"I think Chinese people will slowly change their way of thinking. More and more customers ask for no-smoking areas," she said.
Tobacco kills more than a million people each year in China, where some brands can be purchased for as little as CNY 3 (46 US cents). Chinese and foreign experts say the number of smoking deaths could triple by 2030.
Experts point to the state monopoly on the tobacco industry, which accounts for nearly a tenth of national tax revenue, as one of the biggest obstacles to anti-smoking efforts.
Beijing dragged its feet in adopting the ban -- its takes effect four months after the expiration of a deadline set by the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which China signed five years ago.
So far, there has been no major nationwide public awareness campaign to promote the ban and enforcement issues and penalties also are not clearly spelled out in the regulations.
China`s official news agency Xinhua said on Friday the ban is "likely to be ignored by smokers, public venue operators, and the general public due to its vague content," singling out a lack of clarity on penalties and enforcement.
Similar temporary bans introduced during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and last year`s World Expo in Shanghai were rarely respected or enforced.
But Zang Jing, the owner of a cigarette and alcohol shop, said she would "definitely sell fewer cigarettes" following the introduction of the ban.
"It`s not worth worrying about. It`s part of a general trend," she said.