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Why China Has So Many Smokers: Tobacco Lobby, Chinese-Style

The power of "Big Tobacco" in a state-run industry in China is surprisingly similar to the hold that U.S. cigarette makers long enjoyed. Indeed, Chinese anti-smoking advocates are decades behind Western counterparts.

Smoking in Shanghai
Smoking in Shanghai
Liu Jiaying and Zhang Jin

BEIJING — On Jan. 9, 2006 China signed the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. According to this international treaty, China had to ban smoking in all indoor public places and prohibit all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship within five years so as to protect the public from the deleterious health effects.

China patently failed to comply with the provisions during the first five-year term. Now, as the second term is set to end, it's clear that we will again fall well short of the goals set by the convention.

According to a recent WHO project report, China has more than 300 million smokers. That is nearly a quarter of its population. Each year over 1.4 million Chinese smokers die of tobacco-related diseases while more than 100,000 people are killed by second-hand smoke.

Lack of a nationwide law

China still has no national law that effectively bans smoking in indoor public areas. Though something called "Implementation Rules on Public Places Health Management" exists, and China's main advertising regulation mentions the prohibition of tobacco promotion in the mass media, at sport events and so on, since there is no clear definition of "public places" and no vigorous enforcement or punishments, all these regulations regarding tobacco control amount to very little.

Not only is China the world's largest tobacco manufacturer and has the largest number of smokers, smoking still exists in 70% of workplaces and 82% of restaurants, while tobacco ads are omnipresent in Chinese people's daily lives, according to the WHO report.

Up to now, a dozen of China's big cities have enacted local tobacco control regulations. But these regulations do not meet the requirements of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, nor is their enforcement ideal in the WHO's estimation.

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Panda cigarettes — Photo: Taiyo FUJII

Earlier this year, China's Ministry of Finance and State Administration of Taxation finally undertook a two-pronged approach of raising the tax and the price of cigarettes. Meanwhile the Beijing municipality also enacted far stricter local smoke-free regulations. Some believe that China may be turning the corner in the effort to control tobacco.

Wu Yiqun, an activist in tobacco reform and the vice director of the Think Tank Research Center for Health Development, is not so optimistic. In comparison with other countries, she says China's smoking control has a long way to go since the related measures remain only an oral appeal.

As the WHO report notes, only nationwide smoke-free legislation can reduce the number of smokers and protect the public from the ills of second-hand smoke.

A lurch forward

Alas, after 10 years, why is China still hesitating to take this step forward? Why can't the country come up with a national anti-smoking law? One official claimed that "the law involves complex issues, and research and feasibility studies continue to be required."

China still has not joined the many countries that impose pictorial warnings such as damaged lungs or bad teeth on cigarette packets. Zhang Jianshu, president of Beijing Tobacco Control Association, pointed out that this kind of image would clearly discourage smokers. However, again, such a measure has to be imposed by the central government.

Wu Yiqun agrees that putting warning images on cigarette packages is the easiest, and most economical and effective tobacco control education measure. Besides, she stated, Chinese people have the custom of giving cigarettes as a present, so shocking pictures will be useful in changing this habit.

Unfortunately, such an "easy" measure, introduced in more than 60 countries worldwide doesn't yet garner support from the Chinese authorities. In 2008, in a meeting in South Africa discussing the enforcement details of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the Chinese delegation claimed that the beautiful scenery printed on Chinese cigarette packs embodies China's historical and cultural heritage and that using a photo of a rotten lung "would insult and show disrespect to the public."

So what is the real problem holding China back from fighting the harm that tobacco inflicts? In anti-tobacco activists' eyes, the fact that the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration governs both the selling and the control of tobacco is the root cause of the problem. In other words, this bureau is both player and referee. "It's the same set of people working for the China National Tobacco Corporation and the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration," As Li Enze, a Chinese lawyer, told Caixin. "Their director is one and the same person."

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Having a long smoke in Chengdu — Photo: inchengdu

The tobacco monopoly was started to ensure the country's fiscal revenue. Because of its monopoly, the China National Tobacco Corp. (CNTC) makes enormous profits and hands over a huge amount of revenue to the state treasury each year: 41 billion RMB ($6.4 billion) of fiscal revenue, a quarter of its total annual profits. Even the China National Petroleum Corporation, the fourth largest company in the world in terms of revenue, and China Mobile Communications Corporation, the world's largest mobile phone operator by subscribers — both state-owned enterprises — come in behind the state-run tobacco business in filling the public coffers.

As a result the tobacco industry presents the biggest opposition force to a smoking ban. The CNTC has 33 provincial affiliates, and each affiliate owns its own county-level sub-affiliates. The county-level tobacco manufacturers are the ones responsible for cigarette sales, and their profits heavily underwrite the local authorities' treasury. In a big tobacco plantation province, such as Yunnan, add in the power of a huge number of tobacco farmers.

Of course, there are ways to make adjustments for both agricultural output and fiscal sources, but Wu Yiqun says the real problem elsewhere: No country should ever rely on tax revenues that have a negative effect on the lives of its own people.

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Photo of people on a passenger ferry on the Bosphorus, with Istanbul in the background

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