Smoking keeps China’s poor mired in poverty, global agencies say
From buying cigarettes to paying hospital bills and losing a breadwinner, the economic burden of tobacco use is crippling, says UN and WHO
China’s addiction to smoking is dragging low-income families further down the economic ladder and could prevent Beijing from hitting its poverty-reduction target, two leading global agencies warn in a new report.
Chinese leaders have repeatedly vowed to eliminate poverty – defined as earning less than 2,300 yuan (US$335 or HK$2,600) a year – and build a “moderately affluent society” by 2020. But tobacco use diverted household funds away from basic necessities such as food, education, medical care and insurance, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Development Programme said in the study released in Beijing on Friday.
Smoking also sapped household incomes when a breadwinner died from tobacco-related illness, the agencies said. Treating related diseases such as lung cancer added to the financial burden, especially for families whose public health insurance did not cover the full cost of treatment.
“The health and economic impacts of tobacco use are a direct threat to this goal being achieved, by forcing many Chinese families into poverty, and preventing others from escaping it,” the report said.
“Harmonious and human-centred development, which is the central goal of the Chinese government, requires leaving tobacco addiction behind,” said Nicholas Rosellini, resident representative of the UN Development Programme in China.
Some 44 per cent of the world’s cigarettes were smoked on the mainland in 2014, consumed by 315 million people, half of them adult men.
Tobacco use is also behind the rapid rise in rates of non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes. At least half of all smokers are expected to die as a result of their habit, according to the WHO.
“If nothing is done to reduce these numbers and introduce more progressive policies, the consequences could be devastating not just for the health of people across the country, but also for China’s economy as a whole, said Dr Bernhard Schwartländer, the WHO’s representative in China.
The report estimated the total annual economic cost of tobacco use in 2014 was 350 billion yuan, a 10-fold increase since 2000.
The economic toll comprised direct medical expenses, the indirect cost of managing tobacco-related illnesses and the loss of productivity.
The WHO found the death of a head of a household due to smoking resulted in an average yearly loss of income of US$137 for rural households and US$370 for urban ones.
Families do not start to recover financially until at least 10 years afterwards.
Migrant workers were identified as the most vulnerable group likely to smoke. The more they move among cities, homes and jobs, the more they were likely to smoke. But with limited access to public health insurance in the city, they were especially at risk to ruinous medical bills for treatment of related illnesses.