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India latest to ban smoking in public places

India banned smoking in public places on Thursday, leaving public health officials with a much tougher task: get the nation's estimated 120 million smokers to stub out their cigarettes.
India Smoking Ban
India's smoking ban covers offices, hotels, restaurants, hospitals,  college campuses, bars and discos.Ajit Solanki / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

India banned smoking in public places on Thursday, leaving public health officials with a much tougher task: get the nation's estimated 120 million smokers to stub out their cigarettes.

As more countries have clamped down on smoking in recent years, Indians have freely puffed away at playgrounds, railway stations, sidewalk cafes and even hospitals. No more, and a violator will get a $5 fine.

For years, anti-smoking laws in this nation of nearly 1.2 billion people have been widely ignored. And tobacco companies have fought the government to keep warnings off boxes.

Thursday's ban was the government's second try in four years and came on the birthday of India's independence leader, Mohandas Gandhi, who did not smoke or drink.

Officials hope an extensive anti-smoking campaign and tighter enforcement will make the ban successful, but the country's health minister, Anubamani Ramadoss, knows getting people to quit won't happen overnight.

"This is going to be a continuous process," he said.

Smoking bans have taken Europe and the U.S. by storm in recent years, with most European countries and several American cities prohibiting or severely limiting smoking in a host of public places, including bars, restaurants and cafes.

Not common in Asia
But bans are rarer in Asia, though China, home to nearly a third of the world's smokers, has at least partially joined the campaign.

Beijing banned smoking in most public places, including at all Olympic venues, in May. Hotels, restaurants and bars must provide smoking and nonsmoking areas.

Hong Kong prohibits smoking in many public places, even outdoor sites such as beaches and large swaths of public parks. Tightly controlled Singapore has also banned smoking in most public places.

India's smoking ban — which was opposed by the hotel industry and tobacco companies — includes offices, hotels, restaurants and hospitals. It also widens the earlier failed ban to cover college campuses, bars and discos.

Starting off with the $5 fine, officials have plans to raise the penalty to $25 in future.

Authorities say they plan to take action against the owners or managers of public places where the law is violated, and make sure that no ashtrays, matches or lighters are provided there.

People can still smoke in homes, on the roads and parks. Airports, hotels with 30 or more rooms, or restaurants with a seating capacity of 30 or more will be allowed to provide separate smoking areas.

The government hopes the ban will help bring down the number of deaths caused by tobacco use every year.

1 million deaths a year by 2010?
A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine said India is in the grip of a smoking epidemic that is likely to cause nearly 1 million deaths a year by 2010. More than half of these deaths would be among poor and illiterate people, the study said. It estimated that there are 120 million smokers in India.

Gaurav Butani, an advertising professional, said a smoker will light up anywhere.

"I think smoking cannot be banned because it will cause a lot of inconvenience to people who smoke."

In January, Ramadoss criticized India's top Bollywood stars, including Shah Rukh Khan, about smoking on screen, saying that many children have their first cigarettes after watching the actors do it.

On Thursday, Khan sounded amused.

"A better step would be to ban cigarettes, make them illegal and hang anyone found smoking," Khan told the CNN-IBN television news channel. He did not say whether he was planning to give up smoking.