China is weak at the knees when it comes to anti-smoking measures

Watering down of draft law to restrict smoking nationwide ignores the massive health costs of a habit that kills millions every year

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2016, 11:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2016, 11:20pm

Public bans are the most effective way to protect society against the harmful effects of smoking. Studies show marked health benefits when cigarettes are stubbed out. Mainland officials cannot be blind to such research or the cost to society of its nicotine habit while also being sympathetic to the demands of the powerful tobacco industry. Until forceful measures are in place, Chinese will pay a terrible human and economic price.

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The mainland has about 320 million smokers and 1.4 million people die each year from smoking-related illnesses. Should authorities do no more than they have already to curb the habit, the number would reach three million by 2050. The medical costs and toll to families and the workforce is already high, which is why Beijing, Shanghai and a handful of other cities have put in place curbs. A watering down of draft rules to be implemented nationwide therefore makes no sense.

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China signed the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control more than a decade ago, but at least 700 million non-smokers continue to be exposed to second-hand smoke. The draft nationwide law put up for general consultation in 2014 went a long way towards attaining that goal by banning smoking in all indoor public places and some outdoor ones. But the latest version has rolled back provisions to allow restaurants, bars, hotels and airports to set aside smoking areas and would permit the habit in individual offices. It fits a weakened approach that has failed to introduce tried-and-tested anti-smoking strategies like hiking cigarette prices through hefty taxes and mandating prominent health warnings on packaging.

The reason for not being tough is obvious: tobacco companies are state-run and generate huge profits through 50 per cent of men and 2.7 per cent of women smoking. The sector, which employs more than 30 million people, contributed 1.1 trillion yuan (HK$1.3 trillion) to public finances last year. But as compelling as those figures may be to justify limited anti-smoking measures, they ignore the mounting mortality rates and health costs. China’s health has to take priority.