Beijing is using the Olympics to push an anti-smoking campaign. China is a smoking haven, but the side effects of smoking-related illnesses are costing the nation an estimated $5 billion each year. Chinese officials have declared the Olympics smoke-free, and they are counting on the world's largest sporting event to be the trigger that helps Chinese smokers kick the habit. Sam Beattie reports from Beijing for VOA.
On the outside it looks like a regular Chinese restaurant, but inside it is at the forefront of social change.
Manager Guo Xiaodong says his is one of China's first completely smoke-free restaurants. "If we can provide a non-smoking environment surely it is better. That is our idea," he said. "We made this a no-smoking restaurant to welcome the Green Olympics and for the health of you and your family."
Smoke-free since last October, Guo says his restaurant initially lost some customers in the transition. But now, business is as good as ever. Customer Tian Hua enjoys the smoke free atmosphere. "Meal time is not very long. Why do people have to smoke? At other restaurants when people at the next table keep smoking, it is annoying," Hua said.
China is one of the world's biggest producers of cigarettes and is the biggest consumer, with almost 350 million smokers.
But the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee says there will be no lighting up at any of the Olympic venues, and a draft law could make a majority of public places smoke-free as well. Smoking in taxis and public transport has already been banned in Beijing.
Communications lecturer Ren Mengshan published an article supporting the Olympics' no smoking campaign. "The Olympics draws quite a lot of attention,” Mengshan said. “This is the first time China is organizing the Games. The event is highly regarded, so a campaign at this time could be very effective."
The World Health Organization's China Representative, Hans Troedsson, says the anti-smoking effort should continue long after the games finish in August,
"If you can put certain restrictions, regulations and bans in place, before and during the Olympics, there is no reason why it can't be done after too, a kind of legacy that can be sustained after the Olympics."
WHO officials says if smoking rates remain unchecked, up to two million Chinese could die each year from related illness by 2020.
They say it would be a huge victory if the Olympics were to fire up a new health trend and stub out China's smokes.