Beijing must kick its tobacco habit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 April, 2012, 12:00am


A government that cares for the health and well-being of its citizens goes out of its way to keep them from harm. Smoking is undeniably harmful, yet authorities on the mainland have been lax about convincing the 28 per cent of the population who light up to quit. With 1.2 million a year dying from related illnesses and costs for treatment soaring, there would seem every reason to act, but each cigarette sold adds to impressive tax revenues and the state-run China National Tobacco Corporation's mind-boggling profits. Until Beijing tears itself from the industry and actively enforces laws, perceptions will persist that making money is more important than people.

Figures revealed for the first time last month showed the corporation, a monopoly, made more than 320 million yuan (HK$393 million) in profit each day in 2010, ranking it among the mainland's most profitable firms. The central government's tax share last year was 753 billion yuan - more than 7 per cent of total revenue. Anti-smoking lobbyists blame the income for weak enforcement of laws and rules.

The industry argues that China benefits hugely from smoking. Beyond revenue, it estimates that more than 20 million farmers grow tobacco, 520,000 workers process it in factories and 10 million are involved in retailing. But weighed against the health costs, no attempts to justify it can possibly be valid. A Centre for Disease Control report in 2010 put the actual cost to the economy at minus 20 per cent and a US-based study last year determined from analysis of national data that GDP was being eroded by 0.7 per cent due to the medical bills and lost productivity. Rising wages and more expensive equipment mean those amounts are skyrocketing. With the government rolling out its own health insurance programme, they will balloon further.

It is an unsustainable situation. Governments should not be in the tobacco business, no matter how profitable it may be. They should instead be fighting for a healthy, productive population. Good laws are in place; they have to be strictly enforced, a wide-ranging education campaign launched and tax on tobacco products raised dramatically.

Beijing city authorities' plans to ban smoking in all indoor public places offers hope. A nationwide indoor ban introduced last May does not cover workplaces and is being poorly observed - a survey in the capital in November found just one in five restaurants was complying. The proposals would dramatically increase fines for offenders and managers of public spaces and outlaw cigarette sales on World No Tobacco Day on May 31. If properly enforced, the measures would breathe new life into a flagging effort and serve as a model for other mainland cities to follow. But there is little possibility of that as long as the government and tobacco industry remain entwined.