At the ring of the bell, students at Peking University, one of China’s top schools, rush out of classrooms. Some go directly to get water and are greeted by new yellow characters stating “No smoking: Fashionable and healthy!” on hot water boilers.
The signs are part of the school’s initiative to discourage smoking. Peking University is a pilot school in a massive effort by the China Association on Tobacco Control to make universities smoke-free.
The school is so serious about keeping students from lighting up that it has set up a fund to pay for posters and events to promote the initiative. This month, the school is having a knowledge contest about the effects of tobacco and students are expected to sign a pledge, promising that they'll quit.
“We have a certain amount of money to support smoking ban activities and we are preparing to take stricter measures and planning to punish those who are found smoking in public by our inspectors," said Director Yu of the university's General Services office. Yu asked that his full name not be used.
Programs discouraging smoking are new in China, where more than one-quarter of all people -- as many as 350 million -- smoke cigarettes, various sources, including China's Ministry of Health, say. That’s more than the total U.S. population of 311 million. And those affected by second-hand smoke total 740 million.
The vast majority of those who smoke in China smoke daily. Chinese smokers consume one-third of all cigarettes smoked worldwide.
A nationwide ban on smoking in restaurants, bars, hospitals and other public areas recently went into effect. But critics say a widespread lack of knowledge about the health risks of tobacco, along with an entrenched smoking culture, will stymie government efforts.
“Smoking is difficult to control, and we have a long way to go,” tobacco control expert Yang Gonghuan said. “Residents have the right to stop public smoking and their participation is very important. Smoking control is not the responsibility of one person or department, but all of society."
A full-scale ban at Peking University won't happen immediately, Yu said.
"We still need time for details and implementation," he said.
Over time, consequences for smoking will become serious. Professors who smoke could be ineligible for awards. Yu said he hopes to implement a rule that will make smoking students ineligible for scholarships but it's not clear whether he'll get support for that idea.
Peking University began enacting new anti-smoking measures last May. Since then, several other universities, including Renmin University of China and Tsinghua University have banned on-campus smoking.
And, at Peking University, recent months have brought more visible changes, like the signs on the water boilers. There are also signs on doors, mirrors, elevators and even on the school’s LED billboard, all encouraging student to reject second-hand smoke and protect the health rights of other students.
Non-smoking is a fashionable and healthy lifestyle, Yu said.
“Non-smokers are more elegant, confident and independent,” he said. “I hope we can further improve our measures to promote smoking ban.”
“It’s good for us, for it connects non-smoking with awards and punishment,” said Wang Simin, a student in the Department of Foreign Languages.
The reminders on the water boilers and throughout the school are good because they protect the non-smokers from second-hand smoke, Simin said.
New reminders have appeared on the school’s LED billboard, stating “Cherish life, stay away from tobacco.” Wang Ru, a student, called the reminders “impressive.”
But the signs don’t impress everyone.
“They are good, but I think vivid pictures showing the harm of smoking would be better,” said Zhao Fengjie, another student.
Even so, the signs and new rules are making an impact, said Guo Gege, a postgraduate student.
“All these measures are impressive and gradually people will quit smoking because it is fashionable to be environmentally friendly and maintain healthy habits,” she said.
For some students, the promise of a healthy and fashionable image isn’t enough. Foreign students, who might not be as likely to heed the advice of Chinese officials, continue to smoke, said Liu, a life sciences student who asked that his last name not be used.
“Campus smoking is continuing despite the tobacco ban,” he said. “Too many visitors and training groups are in and out of campus. It’s is hard to stop their smoking.”
"Visitors to campus are the most difficult when it comes to the smoking ban," said Ms. Dong, a staff member at the school’s division of general services.
Many Chinese students are reluctant to speak out against second-hand smoke but she said she hopes that will change.