BEIJING – A group of anti-smoking volunteers in blue vests marched through an office building on a recent morning in China's capital, trailed by two police officers and the building's management. As people peered out of the doorways, the volunteers turned several corners and stopped in front of a stairwell door. One of them pushed it open.
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There stood an office worker, pressing a cellphone to one ear and holding a lit cigarette in his other hand. Someone had turned him in.
A stern lecture followed from the group's leader, a stocky, 32-year-old fine arts teacher named Liu Li.
"Today, we won't punish you, but we will criticize and educate you," Liu said in a carrying voice, as the worker bowed and apologized repeatedly. "Don't throw cigarette butts around. You must not act like this next time."
As China considers a nationwide ban on smoking in public places, the fight is well underway in Beijing, which banned smoking in restaurants and other indoor areas 18 months ago. Zealous volunteers and anti-smoking advocates have made some headway against millions of occasionally intransigent smokers and the state-run cigarette monopoly, a large and powerful force in China's government and economy.
Cigarettes are a cultural symbol in China, where national leaders dating back to Mao Zedong were well-known smokers, and where cigarettes are still handed out commonly at weddings, banquets and holiday celebrations. The tobacco industry employs more than 300,000 people and remains a key source of revenue in the national budget. The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration generated more than $150 billion in tax revenues just last year alone.
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But tobacco extracts a huge cost as well. About 1 million deaths a year in China can be attributed to cigarettes, a figure that could triple by 2050 without greater action to curb the habit. China has more than 300 million smokers and nearly half of China's adult males smoke regularly, according to the World Bank.
For all of the attention given to China's notorious air pollution, it's smoking that's often far more damaging and far easier to correct, said Dr. Bernhard Schwartlander, who has worked for several years in China as the World Health Organization's local representative.
"When the air is bad outside, everybody gets upset and talks about it," Schwartlander said. However, "just a few smokers in a room in an average restaurant can cause air pollution inside that is worse than the very worst days we see in Beijing," he said.
At the behest of the WHO and other advocates, China has launched a national anti-smoking campaign backed by the force of Chinese President Xi Jinping, considered the country's strongest ruler in decades.
Shortly after becoming head of the ruling Communist Party in 2012, Xi admonished Communist Party officials not to smoke in public, and his sweeping anti-corruption probe has targeted the acceptance of expensive gifts like fancy cigarettes. Xi, who was once photographed in the 1980s holding a cigarette at his desk as a party cadre, has reportedly quit smoking himself. His wife, the singer and actress Peng Liyuan, has appeared in anti-smoking advertisements in addition to her role as an advocate for HIV-positive people under the WHO.
At a health conference last month in Shanghai, an official with China's national health commission said it was considering a nationwide ban targeting smoking in public places, possibly as soon as the end of this year. Shanghai issued an indoor smoking ban just before the conference, and other cities have also followed suit.
But anti-tobacco advocates remain concerned that the national law currently under consideration might do more harm than good. China's government considers and passes laws behind closed doors and has not made its draft legislation available to the public. Advocates have heard that the law might allow airports and restaurants to establish indoor smoking rooms, or only require offices to keep public areas smoke-free, but not private rooms or an office belonging to one person.
"Top officials must take the lead," said Wu Yiqun, vice director of the ThinkTank Research Center for Health Development. "How could smoking be allowed in the offices of the top officials?"
Many provincial and lower-level officials are smokers themselves and remain steadfast defenders of the industry, especially in rural areas where tobacco employs much of the local population. China Tobacco did not respond to questions submitted by fax.
Wu and others hope they can eventually build off the progress they've made in individual cities like Beijing. Anyone caught smoking inside a restaurant, office building, public bus or train can be ticketed and fined up to 200 yuan ($32). No-smoking signs have popped all over the sprawling city of 20 million people.
A network of volunteers has been trained by the government-funded Beijing Tobacco Control Association to monitor complaints and catch smokers. After a recent training session, participants got a bag that included lapel pins declaring them to be a "smoking control volunteer," and a wide red sash with yellow lettering urging people not to smoke that they could wear at work and on the street.
In a meeting with Associated Press journalists, association director Zhang Jianshu showed off an interactive map of Beijing on a flat-screen television in his office that was dotted with small blue sirens marking the spot of a complaint submitted by a tipster.
Volunteers must pledge never to have smoked before, said Liu Li, the volunteer who led the pursuit of smokers in stairwells. Anyone caught smoking is expelled from the group.
Just 2,700 people have been fined since the law went into effect, an average of fewer than five a day, according to state media. But residents of Beijing almost uniformly agree the campaign has made an impact.
"A couple of years ago, you couldn't enter any bar or any restaurant without being exposed to smoke," Schwartlander said. "Today, it's almost the absolute exception."
At the private Jingdong Zhongmei hospital in Hebei province just outside Beijing, doctors say they continue to see plenty of smokers come in with lung cancer and other illnesses. Dr. Tao Suli, a lung cancer physician, said a national law would provide necessary backing for people to speak up against smoking.
"If the government wants to take a path of sustainable development, it has to adopt a smoking ban," Tao said. "It's meaningless to achieve short-term economic growth by sacrificing human health, and it won't last long."
Associated Press journalist Isolda Morillo and researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.