A strong role model can help China curb the problems of smoking
But the country must also be mindful of the economic damage any sudden and drastic measures may cause to state revenue
Smoking supports a pillar of mainland state revenue from tax and tobacco monopoly profits. But China would be immeasurably better off without the social and economic cost and human suffering of smoking-related death and illness. Despite all the evidence to this effect, China still serves as a reminder that while tobacco addiction is bad enough, it is worse when the state becomes hooked on the evil and conflicted about quitting.
It is in this context that the State Council is considering whether to enforce stricter tobacco controls. The first draft of a national law proposed a smoking ban in all indoor and some outdoor public areas, in line with the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which China has ratified. The latest draft back-pedals, with exemptions for restaurants, bars, hotels and airports. At times like this health officials and anti-smoking activists look for an edge in lobbying behind the scenes that pits the public interest against vested interest.
WHO director-general Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun has struck a blow for the former by citing the example of China’s most famous quitter, president and party chief Xi Jinping, who gave up smoking during the 1980s when an official in Fujian province, according to state media. “There are about 300 million smokers [in the mainland]”, she said. “President Xi understands the importance of tobacco control.”
Chan obviously understands the importance of role models in China’s authoritarian political system. Xi strikes a contrast with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, both known as heavy smokers. According to Wu Yiqun, deputy director of the Think Tank Research Centre for Health Development, Xi’s stance will be important when the government decides which way to swing. We trust that the outcome reflects his image as a role model, and helps persuade smokers to give up or cut down – a gradual process that will not hurt the economy through abrupt disruption of the tobacco industry.