320m-yuan-a-day habit that mainland finds hard to quit

Recent anti-smoking drive proves 'ultra-light' when it comes to impact on cigarette industry

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 5:11am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 5:11am

Are the mainland's anti-smoking efforts merely a smokescreen masking a very different reality? In December, the Communist Party banned officials from smoking in public places and buying cigarettes using state funds. It also barred government offices from selling tobacco products or displaying tobacco advertisements.

Then last month, the National Health and Family Planning Commission announced that it was "actively trying to have the National People's Congress (NPC) pass a law to contain the harm of tobacco use", and planned to impose a ban across the mainland on smoking in public places by the end of the year.

It has been nearly a decade since China ratified the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005, which came into force on the mainland on January 9, 2006. As one of the 168 signatories, China was obliged to launch concrete measures in the following three years, including banning indoor smoking; requiring health warnings to appear on at least half of the surface area of cigarette packs specifying the potential harm of tobacco; and prohibiting the use of misleading terms such as "low tar", "light" and "ultra-light".

Yet, by 2009, China had failed to effectively ban smoking in public places. Today, terms such as "light" remain common, while the pack merely states smoking is harmful and quitting lowers the risk - a warning rendered in such fine print and in colours so close to the background that the words are seemingly not meant to be read.

Other unfulfilled promises followed. In 2010, the NPC included in its 12th five-year plan a pledge to ban smoking indoors and on public transport by 2015. In 2011, the Ministry of Health issued guidelines banning smoking in all indoor public venues. Nothing much has changed. An industry-affiliated academic promoting "low-tar herbal" cigarettes was elected to the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2011.

The catch is that tobacco production is a state-monopolised pillar industry. The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA) runs the China National Tobacco Corporation, the world's biggest cigarette producer. Earning more than 320 million yuan (HK$406.7 million) a day, the company was reported to be worth 970 billion yuan in 2010. Tobacco taxes have topped sources of government income since 1987, registering 700 billion yuan in 2011. With more than 300 million smokers, mainland China is the world's biggest cigarette consumer.

About 20 million farmers grow tobacco and over 10 million people engage in the production and sale of cigarettes. That the regulator is also the operator allows the industry to promote production and consumption with implied state authority. When taxes were raised, STMA responded by subsidising producers and preventing any real price rise in cigarettes, already among the cheapest in the world.

Critics have long decried this institutionalised conflict of interest between government and industry. In 2012, WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun called the industry a "ruthless and devious enemy" of global anti-smoking efforts. Dr Douglas Bettcher, then director of the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative Department, urged a "firewall" between producers and regulators for effective tobacco control. But with interests so intertwined, can China seriously fight this public health war that claims 1.2 million lives a year?

Dr Karen Lee is assistant professor at the Institute of Education