From: Reuters
Published January 18, 2008 01:04 AM

Customers desert China smoke-free restaurant

BEIJING (Reuters) - Beijing's first smoke-free restaurant chain faces going out of business after its customers deserted it in droves after the ban was enforced, state media reported on Friday.

The Chinese are the world's most enthusiastic smokers, with a growing market of more than 350 million, making it a magnet for cigarette companies and a focus of international health concerns.

The occupancy rate at Meizhou Dongpo, a chain serving the spicy fare of southwest Sichuan province, had dropped to "about 80 percent of that enjoyed by other restaurants across the street" after it banned smoking in October, the China Daily quoted its manager as saying.

"We figure that if we're going to die, at least we're going to die honorably," the paper quoted Guo Xiaodong, deputy director of the restaurant chain, as saying.

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Meizhou Dongpo had trained its waitresses how to discourage people from lighting up, but met resistance from customers who would lock staff out of private dining rooms to sneak a quick puff, Guo said.

"It just illustrates how much resistance there is to kicking the habit among Chinese smokers," the paper quoted Zhang Xuemei, a Beijing reporter who lobbied the restaurant to ban smoking, as saying.

Beijing, set to mark the 200-day countdown to the Olympics on Monday, has yet to issue clear rules on smoking bans, despite Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao promising a "smoke-free Olympics."

Along with spitting, and not queuing, Olympic organizers fear Chinese people's tendency to smoke anywhere at any time could taint the country's image in foreign eyes.

China banned smoking in taxis in October and launched a drive to ban smoking in hospitals, schools, and government offices last year.

But resistance to the campaign has been fierce.

Beijing authorities had written to 30,000 restaurants asking them to put smoking bans in place, but not a single one had taken up the suggestion, the paper said.

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