Do National Smoking Bans Actually Work?

Russia just enacted one. Here's how they've fared in other developed countries

  • Share
  • Read Later
Maxim Shemetov / REUTERS

A woman smokes a cigarette in a café in Moscow, on May 31, 2013

The world’s third largest tobacco market has officially banned smoking.

As of June 1, Russians are no longer allowed to light up on public transportation, at airports and train stations, and inside schools and hospitals, among other public spots. Cigarette ads will also vanish from streets, and smoking won’t be featured in Russian-made movies and cartoons (sorry, Gena the pipe-smoking crocodile).

The ban is the country’s most comprehensive effort yet to encourage daily smokers — more than half of men and about one-sixth of women, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — to kick the habit and prevent about 200,000 deaths each year.

But will it actually work? Here’s how similar efforts have played out in other developed nations.

Ireland became the first nation to institute a countrywide workplace-smoking ban in 2004. The new regulation built onto the 1988 sanctions against cigarette smoking in many public buildings and on public transportation (save for smoking-permitted carriages).

In 2005, researchers recorded a 17% drop in respiratory issues and found that 80% of those surveyed didn’t just say the ban encouraged them to quit; 88% said it kept them smoke-free. Prosmoking lobbyists still take issue with the initiatives fueled by Health Minister James Reilly, who recently revealed that his father and brother died from smoking-related illnesses and who is cracking down on package marketing, but his policies appear effective. New research on the effect of the 2004 legislation found that double-digit drops in heart disease and strokes and that cleaner air had prevented 3,700 deaths.

Its first efforts came in May 2006, when officials announced that the Beijing Olympics would be smoke-free — specifically hospitals used for the games and public transportation. In May 2011, the government pushed to puff out cigarette smoking at all indoor public venues.

More than two years later, the consensus is that it didn’t really work. But it was a tall order to begin with: More than one-third of the world’s smokers are Chinese — in 2012, the average citizen smoked 30% more than in 1990 — and 1 million of them die each year from related diseases. Previous efforts derailed due to patchy enforcement, as the government body in charge of carrying out national antismoking laws was also running the world’s largest cigarette maker. Jay Chittooran, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested in March that China could boost tobacco abstinence for students, resolve the aforementioned conflict of interest and raise prices. So far, aside from forbidding vending machines from selling cigarettes and prominently displaying no-smoking signs, the habit remains firmly entrenched in China and evidence of it is ubiquitous.

Lawmakers introduced an extensive smoking ban in January 2005 that prohibited the act in all indoor public places. The measure wasn’t welcomed by bar owners, who claimed that smoking is ingrained in their culture and who faced a $2,600 fine for failing to make sure their customers didn’t smoke. Despite it being legal to cordon off certain smoke-if-you-want areas, they decried the expense for automatic doors and ventilation systems.

Nationwide health improved though, as researchers in Rome later found that cigarette sales slowed by 5.5%, smoking frequency among men dropped more than 4% and the number of heart attacks significantly decreased. Italians can still partake outdoors, but in August 2011, one mayor near Venice took it one step further by experimenting with a beach ban, even if he couldn’t punish offenders.

Legislation to ban smoking was passed in 2003, but the guidelines weren’t solidified until Oct. 2, 2008, the birthday of nonsmoker Mohandas Gandhi. At the time, India was home to 120 million smokers — 900,000 of which were dying each year from tobacco-related illnesses — and earlier efforts to curb the habit had proved ineffective. Enforcement and antismoking advocacy were crucial, yet lawbreakers faced a mere $4.50 fine.

Researchers say the new regulation that outlawed workplace smoking has led to more smoke-free homes and that most people supported warnings during Bollywood smoking scenes. But nearly five years later, violations are rampant. The Times of India recently suggested that more pointed awareness campaigns and stricter monitoring would lead to more positive results.

Like the majority of the world, the U.S. does not have a nationwide smoking ban. Rather, it’s up to local and state authorities. To date, 48% of the population is banned from smoking indoors at public venues, like offices, restaurants and bars; outliers like casinos in New Orleans have been slower to give in.

Advocacy campaigns and antismoking legislation have dramatically reduced hospitalizations for tobacco-related diseases, researchers say, but some activists are pushing for outdoors bans as well. George Washington University pledged to not only go smoke-free this fall, but also is planning to ban smoking within 25 ft. of all university-owned public spaces. In late May, Starbucks announced a similar measure for thousands of its cafés.