By: Anita Cheng
Having traveled to China before, I was excited to see the BBC article titled “China ban on smoking in public places comes into force”. While my trip to Beijing in 2008 was filled with amazing historical sights and sounds of my native culture, it was also permeated by clouds of second hand smoke. Looking forward to another trip to the city this summer, I was relieved to see that I may no longer need to hold my breath in restaurants, railway stations, and other public venues. Further examination of the article brought about disappointing news, however. In fact, this smoking ban can be more accurately labeled as “recommendation” because there are no punishments if anyone or any business violates or ignores this rule. In offices, “employers will be obliged to warn staff of the dangers of smoking but not forbid them from lighting up at their desks”.
Using the Catholic Social Teaching framework, I can argue that an injustice is being committed against non-smokers who are being subjected to second-hand smoke. Catholic Social Teaching describes the state’s main role as protection of the rights of its people. If a right to health as a dimension of well-being is recognized, then the Chinese government has not fulfilled its role. Upon initial examination, I was confused as to the motivation behind this ban because the government was not planning on actually enforcing it. Further investigation revealed a possible answer to my query and a deeper injustice.
First of all, the article reported that the majority of China’s population is actually unaware of the toxins contained in cigarettes and second-hand smoke. My reaction was criticism of the government’s public health department’s inability to educate its people on this information. With the article’s disclosure that all of the tobacco products produced and sold in China were through state-owned firms and that sales are a generous source of revenue for the government, I could infer an explanation to my previous questions and criticisms. Catholic Social Teaching instructs that “free market forces must be tempered by moral considerations”. In addition to failure in protecting the right to health for its people, the Chinese government is profiting at the expense of its people’s – both smokers and nonsmokers – health. These actions are deemed social injustices with analysis through the Catholic Social Teaching lens. While identification of the problem is vital to the process of justice, an even more urgent question that must be answered is how public health practitioners should respond. With the country’s highest authority as the main culprit, how can institutional change be effectively implemented?