BEIJING: Cui Dalin, China's deputy sports minister, told legislators that the Beijing Olympics would inspire the Chinese to live healthier lives.
Then he stepped into a hallway where smoking was prohibited and lit a cigarette.
The incident illustrates the uphill battle China faces as it prepares to take what health advocates hope will be a big step against smoking in what is the world's biggest tobacco market. A ban on smoking in most Beijing public places is expected to take effect in May, in hopes of meeting China's pledge of a smoke-free Olympics.
It's a classic case of do-as-I-say, not do-as-I-do.
Smoking here is rampant. For mostly men, it's as vital as drinking water -- a constant companion that's closer than a wife or girlfriend. For someone who comes from North America and is used to no-smoking areas, coming to Beijing to brave the cigarette smoke almost everywhere I go is like putting your health under siege.
In offices, people don't go outside to smoke, but in the hallway or stairwells, making it difficult to escape the horrific smell and haze.
On the one hand it's great to hear the Chinese government intends to ban smoking in most public places -- restaurants, bars, Internet cafes, hotels, offices, holiday resorts and all indoor areas of medical facilities.
But on the other, it's the places that get fined up to 5,000 RMB (US$713), when it really should be the individual smokers who should be penalized.
Cui Xiaobo, a well known tobacco control expert who helped draft the new rule admits there are proposals to fine smokers up to 200 RMB, but nothing is set in stone yet. For the rich, that amount is peanuts, and for migrant workers who want a smoke, it's a hefty fine.
The rich don't think rules apply to them. And that's why this smoking ban is not going to work, unless it is constantly enforced.
However -- there is some hope.
A few weeks ago I went to Din Tai Fung, a Shanghainese restaurant in Shin Kong Place, an upscale mall with apparently the largest Gucci store in Asia. As I waited for my table in the lobby, a man lit up. And the hostess politely asked him to smoke away from the entrance, just off to the side towards the washrooms.
While she didn't make him stand several feet away or stub out completely, it was a refreshing start.
As I've said before, the only way to get people to completely stop smoking is to shame them. Trying to educate the Chinese about the effects smoking does to their health doesn't mean much to them, probably because it's not immediately visible. But making them lose face
-- now that would be revolutionary.