China’s ministry in charge of tobacco control had ties to the tobacco industry. Not anymore

Move to shift responsibility from industry ministry to new agency will free the campaign ‘from the shackles of tobacco industry interests’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 7:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 5:34pm

China is hoping that a change to its government structure will help the campaign to get some of the country’s 350 million smokers to quit the habit.

As part of a sweeping reshuffle, a new health commission will take over from the industry ministry as the government body responsible for tobacco control, implementing a set of international rules from the World Health Organisation.

Beijing signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003 and it took effect in China in 2006. But compliance has been limited, and China is still a bad example on smoking more than a decade after Beijing decided to implement the rules. 

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco. About one in every three of the world’s smokers lives in China, and they use about 44 per cent of the tobacco manufactured globally, according to WHO data.

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It demonstrates China’s determination to clear any obstacles in the way of tobacco control
Wu Yiqun, Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention

Analysts say one of the reasons China has seen little progress in discouraging smoking is that the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has been in charge of tobacco control, while it also has close ties to the industry via China National Tobacco Corp and the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration.

The situation of the industry ministry taking responsibility for both tobacco control and the tobacco industry is “a dark joke”, Wu Yiqun, a researcher at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement. 

Wu, an advocate of stricter tobacco control, also said it was a direct “violation” of the convention, which states that the rules should be implemented by an authority without industry interests. 

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But she was hopeful that the change to the new health commission could lead to more serious and effective tobacco control, saying it will free the campaign “from the shackles of tobacco industry interests”.

“It demonstrates China’s determination to clear any obstacles in the way of tobacco control,” she said.

In China, some 27 per cent of the population smokes, versus the global average of 22 per cent, and about 100,000 people die from passive smoking-related illnesses each year, according to the WHO.

In total, about one million deaths are caused by tobacco every year in China – and that number could rise to three million by 2050 if the country does not act, the organisation has warned.

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While President Xi Jinping was praised as a “good model” for quitting smoking by then WHO director general Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun in 2016, the country as a whole lags behind other places in efforts to curb smoking through packaging, pricing and smoking bans in public areas.

On packaging, the goal under the framework is to have health warnings covering more than half of the main display areas of tobacco products, but in China the authorities have kept this to 30 per cent. Health warnings are also not shown in pictures or pictograms – which means cigarettes are still a popular gift in Chinese society. Under the framework, member countries are supposed to deliver on goals three years after they sign the convention.

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Pricing is also a problem. According to a survey released by the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing this month, cigarettes are too cheap in China to deter smoking, especially among young people. A packet of cigarettes can be bought for as little as 3 to 5 yuan, or about 50 to 80 US cents, in most cities and rural areas.

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The tobacco industry is also as an important source of government revenues in many parts of China, adding another layer of resistance to the quit campaign. Imposing controls on smoking remains difficult because the industry is state-owned and highly lucrative. Last year, Chinese manufacturers of tobacco products made 97.2 billion yuan in profits, although that was down by 6.3 per cent from 2016, according to statistics bureau data. 

A move to ban smoking in all indoor and some outdoor public places has also stumbled. The State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a draft law at the end of 2014 which was tabled in the legislature in 2016. But a watered-down draft included exemptions such as restricting non-smoking areas in workplaces to communal spaces and allowing smoking areas in restaurants and airports. The law has yet to be passed.

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Details of how the new health commission will tackle the fight against tobacco are yet to be revealed. 

“The leadership handover is the first step. The next possible step that we expect is to separate the regulatory role from sales and production in the tobacco industry,” said Wang Kean, director of the ThinkTank Research Centre for Health Development in Beijing.