China must do more to discourage its people from smoking

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 January, 2014, 3:38am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 January, 2014, 3:38am

After Xi Jinping's crackdown on official extravagance, many mainland officials must have felt that smoking remained one of their few pleasures. It is also a habit shared by more than 300 million compatriots. This helps support more than 20 million growers on the land, 500,000 employed in factories and 10 million involved in retailing, but it also kills an estimated 1.2 million a year through related causes. The Communist Party's Central Committee and State Council are therefore to be commended for asking officials to "take the lead" in toeing the line on a smoking ban in public places. Flouting of the ban by officials has made a mockery of China's ratification in 2005 of the WHO framework convention on tobacco control, which includes a ban on smoking in indoor workplaces and public areas. How can smokers be expected to take it seriously?

The tallying of the social and fiscal benefits claimed by the state tobacco monopoly against attempts to quantify the terrible health and economic costs is bizarre. In a rare regulatory filing last year, China National Tobacco Corp revealed it made more than 300 million yuan (HK$381 million) a day in net profit in 2010. The industry paid an estimated 753 billion yuan in industrial-commercial taxes in 2011. No matter how profitable it may be, governments have no business being in the tobacco business except to run it down and get out of it, regardless of arguments that if the government doesn't control it, someone else will. That is a matter for law enforcement.

The authorities have banned officials from smoking in schools, hospitals, sports venues, public transport vehicles or any other venues where it is banned. That is a start. Given the social tentacles of tobacco addiction, such as dependence on it for livelihoods, the government cannot close the industry down overnight. But it can learn from other places that have cut smoking rates drastically, including Hong Kong, by raising tobacco taxes progressively to make the habit ever more expensive, especially for young people before they earn enough to afford to become heavy smokers.