On anti-smoking policies, mainland China can learn from Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 October, 2015, 1:23am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 October, 2015, 1:23am

So chronic is the addiction to smoking on the mainland, so dilatory is the official response to science-based appeals for action to combat it, that it could seem a waste of time to keep on about it. But occasionally researchers come up with a new angle that cannot be ignored. In this case it is that smoking could eventually kill one in three young men in China in what will be a crisis for a labour force depleted by ageing and for the public health system.

What sets this scenario apart is not just that it is so grim. It is also because it is based on collaborative studies by researchers from Oxford University, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and the Chinese Centre for Disease Control. These showed that two-thirds of China's young men smoke and, unless they quit, half will die from smoking-related diseases.

China has more than 350 million smokers who consume more than a third of the world's cigarettes and account for a sixth of the global smoking death toll. The principal beneficiary is not Big Tobacco - the multinationals fighting over a shrinking market in the West - but the state-owned tobacco monopoly and its administration. The government needs to break its addiction to the huge profits and tax revenue they amass.

China does have smoking bans in public areas but there is room to extend them and enforce them with greater urgency and rigour. As Wu Yiqun, from the think tank Research Centre for Health Development, says, persuading people to cut down and quit smoking will not hurt the economy as it is a gradual process rather than abrupt dislocation of an industry that provides or helps provide a living for millions.

According to Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences professor Yang Gonghuan, failure to heed scientific studies could lead to catastrophic losses in health expenditure and the workforce. To avoid them, the government must resort to incremental tax rises on cigarettes, backed by relentless focus on public education, and inexorable tightening of restrictions on where people can smoke. In these respects, Hong Kong and its smoking rate of just 10 per cent is a model of kinds.