The Beijing Non-smoking List, Part One: Coffee Shops

No smoking lung cancerFirst, a full disclaimer: I am a very occasional smoker. Every so often I enjoy a cigarrillo outside on a warm night. I’ve “enjoyed” this bad habit for many years, and I very much understand the physiology of addiction — first-hand.

Having said that, the issue of secondhand smoke is a deadly serious issue, and I am a strong supporter of banning all indoor smoking to protect workers and others in the vicinity. One of my top goals in China is to change the pervasive culture of smoking here, especially indoor smoking. Beijing was supposed to have smoke-free restaurants with their new law on May 1, 2011, but I saw absolutely no change anywhere. I am disappointed especially in the tyranny of the male masses who continue to smoke in the clearly marked smoke-free sections of restaurants and hotels. It’s all too common for the wait staff to cower in fear and not want these lawbreakers “lose face” by asking them to stop. This mentality needs to change in China, one person at a time.

So I’d like to push this issue a little bit by making it more “ok”  to fight for your human right not to get cancer from smokers sitting next to you. We consumers should vote with our feet and support places that have the moral courage to be nonsmoking trailblazers in China. Let’s start with a review of Beijing coffee shops, as I love hanging out in coffee shops and I’ve seen quite a few in Beijing. I’ve created a list below in order of their attitudes towards smoking. I’ve rated them from 1 (pathetic) to 10 (pristine). Let’s jump in, in order from best to worst:

Starbucks: 9/10 — Starbucks definitely deserves praise for what they’ve done in China. Before Starbucks came along, there were essentially zero cafes and teahouses for people to escape from the odor of smoke on their clothes. Starbucks came along with its 100% smoke-free policy (indoors, at least) and continues to spread this radical idea into smaller and smaller cities in China. On the rare times I’ve seen people try to light up, I’ve seen the wait staff quickly tell them to please stop. The only major complaint I have is with their outdoor seatings, where I often will see people light up.

Bookworm: 9/10 — Bookworm deserves its good reputation as an expat oasis for culture, but until recently they had allowed smoking in their front room. And as I showed in my report a couple years ago, without proper ventilation their indoor air pollution levels in their smoke-free area were essentially the same as in the smoking area. Fortunately, this is no longer an issue as all Bookworm stores are now 100% smoke -free. Thanks, Alex!

Costa, Esquire, Pacific Coffee: 8/10 — All of the other international coffee shop brands since Starbucks also are totally smoke-free inside their indoor cafes, which again has really legitimized the smoke-free public space campaign in China. But again I still see smokers outside. I rank them below Starbucks mostly because they were followers and not trailblazers. Also, I’m annoyed that none of them carry regular brewed coffee that Starbucks has. forcing you to buy the more expensive barista blends. No coffee shop’s cheapest coffee should be more than $3 USD!

Peanut Cafe: 8/10 Peanut Cafe is probably in the coolest location of any cafe in Beijing; nestled inside the spooky but lovely Duanqirui Government complex 段祺瑞执政府院内, this charming independent cafe reminds me of a good neighborhood cafe in San Francisco. The main room is smoke-free and there are enclosed and outdoor patios which could be for smokers; usually the smell doesn’t mix much. Peanut is a great cafe to mellow away a couple of hours — and don’t forget your camera!

Sculpting in Time: 7/10 — Sculpting in Time “雕刻时光咖啡馆” is a chain of mostly very charming cafes, usually close to a college, all over Beijing (here’s a map). I really like their ambience and their coffees, as well as their excellent sandwiches — but each of their dozen stores has differing policies on non-smoking section. Their best is the enormous and completely smoke-free branch near the museum here (score 9/10). They usually have a separate floor for non-smokers, but often it’s right next to the nonsmoking section, and without good ventilation the separate area is essentially meaningless. The one closest to my hospital in Lido is one of the worst (score 3/10), with the vast majority of seating for smokers while non-smokers are banished to non-ventilated, dark corners in the back.  I’ve tried to talk to their managers about going smoke-free and they were actually interested, but they are concerned about losing business. Perhaps we can all write to them or their Weibo and help encourage them?

Maan Coffee: 2/10 — I was very disappointed in Maan 漫咖啡, a newer chain in a very impressive glass building near Lido Park. I really wanted this to be my new hangout, but their spacious and lovely second floor is completely reserved for smokers, and the stench and pall was so strong that my wife and I got headaches in five minutes and had to leave early, ruining our planned long stay. Their non-smoking area on the first floor is much smaller, so clearly Maan has decided which demographic to coddle. I mostly feel bad for their workers who are subjected to such high levels of secondhand smoke every day.

Others: I’m sure there are many others; which ones do you hate/love?

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