No Smoking… in China?

1001 Taiwanese-Style Beef Noodles

China is known to be a nation of heavy smokers. So I was taken by surprise when I overheard this exchange in a beef noodle restaurant in the Cloud Nine (龙之梦) mall by Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park:

> Customer: 服务员,烟灰缸! [Waitress, (bring an) ashtray!]

> Waitress: 这里不可以吸烟。 [You can’t smoke here.]

> Customer: 有吸烟区吗? [Is there a smoking section?]

> Waitress: 没有。 [No.]

> Customer: [grumble, grumble]

In case you’re not familiar with China, let me tell you what’s surprising.

1. The guy asked for an ash tray rather than just lighting up.

2. The guy (and the other two men with him) accepted the restaurant’s no smoking policy

I guess I just like to celebrate the tiny little signs of social progress I see around me.

I’ve also noticed a sharp divide between the coffee shops in Shanghai. If you accept that the major chains here are Starbucks (星巴克), Coffee Bean (香啡缤), and UBC (上岛咖啡), they fall on a smoking/no-smoking continuum like so:

The Smoking/Non-Smoking Cafe Continuum (Shanghai)

Costa Coffee aligns with Starbucks, and, at least in some locations, Cittá has recently joined the “glassed-in smoking section” faction, joining Coffee Bean.

You can see how smoking policies align with these companies’ target markets. UBC, with its dedication to universal smokers’ rights, frequently reeks of smoke, and has quite a few middle-aged Chinese men in there talking business (or something). Starbucks, on the other hand, is full of trendy young Shanghainese, and usually at least a couple foreigners. The interesting thing is that Coffee Bean and its ilk seem to have basically the same types of customers as Starbucks, and you rarely see middle-aged people there, even if they can smoke there. Most of the smokers at Coffee Bean and Cittá are young.

What does all this mean? Well, I’m just hoping that there will be less smoking in China’s future. Maybe UBC will even start to reek less!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I totally approve the “we should be more civilized and not smoke in public areas, restaurants, parks, school’s canteen, mountains et cetera”… but I do also think that coffee and cigarette go together quite well!!
    such a dilemma…

  2. When I smoked I did encounter restaurants and diners telling me “no smoking” relatively frequently in Shenzhen.

    I think the graph about the coffee shops is what it’s all about. The middle class establishments will try to clean up their act. The average cheap places of course don’t care, and in the high class places, you are rich/important enough to tell the waitress to @$%# off if she says no smoking 😀

  3. I have been in Buddhist restaurants that don’t allow smoking. I was at one with a friend who is quite a heavy smoker. He was told to stop smoking; he wasn’t pleased, he hesitated for a moment and then the fuwuyuan actually took the cigarette out of his hand.

  4. I dream of the day when anti-tobacco policies will be implemented in China… I doubt I will live to see it, though.

    My Chinese husband claims that this smoke and drink during meals thing is deeply rooted in their culture. But that’s the exact same argument that was given in my country -Spain- a few years ago, and now we have one of the most restrictive anti-tobacco policies in the world.

    Things can change.

    • In Taiwan, where most people are culturally Chinese, people don’t smoke in restaurants; it’s illegal and the law is enforced. I bet Hong Kong is similar. So, the “Chinese culture” reasoning doesn’t play out. It’s my guess the condition in China is related to education and habit, not unlike the west a 60 or so years ago. It seems things are getting better as the average urbanite becomes more health savvy. I wouldn’t be surprised if public smoking policy turns out to resemble Taiwan’s in 10 to 20 years.

      However, there are outdoor, street-side coffee shops that cater to middle-aged smokers, much like John described above.

      Anyways, good post. I’ve been thinking about demographics and coffee shops for some time now and I pretty much came to the same conclusion.

      • I lived in Taiwan from 2002 until last year. I don’t know if you were there until recently, but even in 2008 it was almost unthinkable that it would actually go no smoking. After the indoor smoking ban was enacted, it was basically ignored for most of a year. It’s only very recently that it’s gotten to be commonly enforced. Still, there are many, many restaurants where people still smoke in Taiwan. In fact it’s a little difficult to find an inexpensive 熱炒 restaurant where people don’t.

      • Most 熱炒 restaurants are outdoor.

    • I have lived in Taiwan for some time now and can’t think of a time when someone was smoking in a restaurant. Perhaps in Taidong things are different, but I doubt that; I spend several weeks of the year in southern Hualian, and haven’t noticed any smokers there.

      Even when I first came here, before the law, people didn’t smoke in restaurants.

  5. Can’t agree more!

  6. banamajiayou Says: February 16, 2011 at 2:13 am

    I saw a Starbucks employee asking a guy to not talk to loud on his cell phone in Hangzhou. Anything is possible.

  7. […] ook het roken in ziekenhuizen dit jaar een totaalverbod krijgt. Of de Chinezen deze vorm van sociale vooruitgang zullen accepteren is alleen de vraag. […]

  8. What I find particularly curious here is that the “companies” are enforcing the no-smoking policy, not the government or health agencies. They are putting up the signs and enforcing the rules themselves despite any potential backlash or reduction in sales.

    While I myself am an ex-smoker and even have the occasion smoke (only in China) still, I have ALWAYS (and I do mean always) respected other peoples’ right to not smoke nor breathe in my hurtful and smelly 2nd hand smoke. However, I come from a country where “no smoking” zones have been in place my whole life plus I am a considerate person by nature so it’s normal to me to act that way.

    I remember my first trip to China and one of my pals taking me to a nearby 7-11 style store.. fully airconditioned etc and I was halfway through my smoke.. told him I would wait outside while he got his stuff; of course he quickly declared/proclaimed that there is no reason to wait outside and that it is ok to smoke there. Even when I knew I was allowed to do it, I still felt VERY strange smoking inside the shop.

  9. Are these changes isolated to Westernised cities like Shanghai or spread all around mainland China? I’ve been travelling around Yunnan, Sichuan and Beijing this last month and have seen people smoking in almost any enclosed space you can imagine.

  10. Saw this on the NYT, thought it was interesting

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