Background: Despite the tremendous economic and health costs imposed on China by tobacco use, China lacks a proactive and systematic tobacco control surveillance and evaluation system, hampering research progress on tobacco-focused surveillance and evaluation studies.
Methods: This paper uses online search query analyses to investigate changes in online search behavior among Chinese Internet users in response to the adoption of the national indoor public place smoking ban. Baidu Index and Google Trends were used to examine the volume of search queries containing three key search terms "Smoking Ban(s)," "Quit Smoking," and "Electronic Cigarette(s)," along with the news coverage on the smoking ban, for the period 2009-2011.
Findings: Our results show that the announcement and adoption of the indoor public place smoking ban in China generated significant increases in news coverage on smoking bans. There was a strong positive correlation between the media coverage of smoking bans and the volume of "Smoking Ban(s)" and "Quit Smoking" related search queries. The volume of search queries related to "Electronic Cigarette(s)" was also correlated with the smoking ban news coverage.
Interpretation: To the extent it altered smoking-related online searches, our analyses suggest that the smoking ban had a significant effect, at least in the short run, on Chinese Internet users' smoking-related behaviors. This research introduces a novel analytic tool, which could serve as an alternative tobacco control evaluation and behavior surveillance tool in the absence of timely or comprehensive population surveillance system. This research also highlights the importance of a comprehensive approach to tobacco control in China.