The China Tobacco Museum in Shanghai, which is at the centre of a continuing dispute on the mainland. Photo: SCMP

Anti-smoking activists in row over China Tobacco Museum in Shanghai

Shanghai gallery visited by children was named as centre for 'patriotic education', but anti-smoking lobby says it fails to highlight health risks


Anti-smoking activists are angry at the controversial designation of Shanghai's China Tobacco Museum as a "patriotic education base".

Analysts say the row highlights the ongoing battle between the nation's tobacco industry and its opponents.

The designation was made in June on the basis that one exhibit shows how tobacco factory workers joined anti-imperialism activities in the 1930s and '40s.

But the recent public outrage also stems from the fact that young, susceptible schoolchildren are still being taken on field trips to the tobacco-themed museum, named three years ago as a base to promote popular science and to cultivate moral values in minors.

The mainland's anti-smoking sector considers the museum to be a propaganda tool of the tobacco industry. It has called on the government to remove the controversial designations bestowed on the museum and close it down.

Built by the tobacco industry at a cost of millions of yuan, it opened in 2004 and is the biggest of its kind on the mainland, with smaller ones in Shandong and Yunnan .

The museum features exhibitions on the history, development and culture of tobacco on the mainland and even the anti-tobacco campaigns. The most controversial content concerns tobacco's control and culture.

Some exhibits use outdated research as evidence that tobacco is not very harmful to health.

One such study, from the American Medical Association in 1948, tells visitors that "from a psychological perspective, tobacco can relieve stress".

Also included are statements from 1924 supporting an erroneous claim that smoking and sickness were unrelated.

"The museum is trying to dilute the dangers of smoking. There is no warning to visitors about the dangers of tobacco," said anti-smoking activist Wu Yiqun, who established a think tank that has promoted smoke-free environments since 2006.

Instead, the exhibits emphasise how the tobacco industry has used science to lower the level of addictive nicotine in their products, and how much the industry has contributed to the mainland's economic growth by contributing billions in taxes.

The museum also points to a link between smoking and greatness, with a section called "Great men, celebrities and tobacco".

The caption on a large photo, which depicts famed 20th century writer Lu Xun smoking, says: "Tobacco always accompanied Lu Xun during his hard days."

In his publications, Lu actually told his doctor that he wanted to quit smoking but failed, Wu said. Lu died from tuberculosis at the age of 55.

"These exhibitions will lead teenagers to believe that they want to get closer to smoking, not away from it," Wu said.

The information office of the Shanghai municipal government did not respond to questions from the about the museum.

But an official with the office was quoted by Xinhua in August as saying the museum's designation as a "patriotic education base" was made because it shows how tobacco workers participated in the overthrowing of imperial rule.

The official was also quoted as saying that Shanghai has a clear evaluation process in selecting sites for such designation, and that the Shanghai government had talked with the museum about increasing that type of "patriotic" educational content while also doing more to show the harm of smoking.

But anti-smoking activists such as Wu remain worried the contents of the museum will not only encourage young people to smoke, but will make the regulation of tobacco more difficult.

Tobacco control is a daunting task. Nine years ago, the country joined the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control - a global treaty to limit the use of tobacco.

But the country still has 320 million smokers, and the smoking rate has been rising in recent years, according to official figures. Meanwhile, the tobacco industry has, to some extent, been successful in polishing its image through the museum.

In a study by the School of Public Health at Shanghai's Fudan University, involving a focus group of 59 undergraduate and postgraduate students, the percentage of those who thought smoking was bad for health dropped from 83 per cent to half after a visit to the museum.

And those who agreed that famous people were smokers rose from 48 to 63 per cent.

Research co-ordinator Zheng Pinpin told the : "We should be concerned whether the tobacco industry is intervening in public health education." The museum in Shanghai attracts about a dozen visitors a day, according to Chen Zhongliang, one of the security guards. But it is relatively unknown to many people in the city, let alone across the country.

It was only after media reports about the museum's controversial designation that some curious people began visiting.

One such recent visitor, who declined to be named, said the exhibits appeared biased.

"I think the tobacco museum is more like an enterprise museum established to promote the tobacco industry," he said. "I would not recommend that children visit the museum."

He didn't disagree with the presence of a tobacco museum, just the lack of accurate information, such as about the harmful effects of smoking. The government, he said, has a responsibility to ensure that the information is correct, and should regularly inspect the exhibits.

Suo Chao, head of public relations for the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control, said the group sent a letter to the Shanghai government in July expressing concern that some of the museum's content wasn't conducive to tobacco control efforts.

"We hope Shanghai can take the lead in removing the designation of the museum as a patriotic education base," Suo said, adding that they were hoping the government would reply soon.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Activists fuming over tobacco museum