China aims to sell 6 billion cigarettes but tells people to quit smoking. What does it want?

  • State-owned China National Tobacco says it expects to hit sales goal despite government’s efforts to get people to smoke less
  • Smoking-related illnesses cause about 1 million deaths a year in China
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2018, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2018, 10:17pm

China’s state-owned tobacco producer said it will meet its annual sales target this year, official media reported on Wednesday, raising questions about the sincerity of Beijing’s effort to improve public health by encouraging people to smoke less.

China National Tobacco Corp, the world's largest maker of tobacco products by revenue, announced during its annual meeting in Beijing last week that it will reach its sales target for this year of 47.5 million crates of cigarettes, up 0.2 per cent from a year ago, state-controlled Beijing Youth Daily reported.

By the end of the year, sales compared with a year earlier will be up by 122,000 crates – or 6.1 billion cigarettes, according to figures cited by the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League committee.

In 2017, China National Tobacco had sales of 47.4 million crates, up 0.8 per cent from 2016.

The company’s upbeat forecast comes as smoking-related illnesses cause the deaths of about 1 million Chinese per year.

“China’s smoking rate is currently the highest in the world. But while smoking rates are gradually falling in the rest of the world, China still wants to increase tobacco sales. It’s really unbelievable,” said Cui Xiaobo, a professor at Beijing’s Capital Medical University.

Beijing bans smoking in public places as China eyes nationwide tobacco crackdown

China has the world’s largest population of smokers, numbering about 315 million, or nearly a third of the adult population. With cigarettes cheap and widely available, the pastime is embedded in social norms. More than half of all Chinese men smoke.

China National Tobacco, which owns such well-known Chinese brands such as Hongtashan, Baisha and Double Happiness, accounts for 98 per cent of all tobacco sales in China, and generates up to 11 per cent of the country’s taxes.

Demand is steadily growing despite the government’s efforts to curb smoking in public spaces in major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. These restraints accompany restrictions on tobacco advertising as well as health warnings on cigarette packets.

Beijing implemented the country’s “strictest anti-tobacco laws” in 2015, by banning smoking in indoor public places. The prohibition led to the number of smokers dropping slightly to 22.3 per cent of the city’s adult population in 2018, according to data from the Beijing Health Promotion Work Committee.

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

China National Tobacco’s expectation it will achieve its sales target drew criticism from anti-smoking groups such as the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control.

“The annual target is contrary to the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and also goes against the goal of reducing the number of smokers in China [as] outlined in the Healthy China 2030 Plan,” the group’s vice-president Zhi Xiuyi was quoted as saying by Beijing Youth Daily.

Numerous studies have shown that tobacco use and even second-hand smoke exposure carry massive health risks, causing cardiovascular illnesses such as strokes.

The South China Morning Post’s calls to China National Tobacco went unanswered. The company has previously released statements in which it promised to reduce the tar content of its cigarettes to improve public health.

Chinese city threatens US$1.50 fine for smoking in public spaces

Numerous users of Chinese social media said the state tobacco producer’s growing sales were incongruous with the government’s stated desire to improve public health.

“Smokers contribute a lot to the country,” one user of Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, said. “They pay more taxes [through buying cigarettes] and die early.”

At least one user suggested complaining was a futile endeavour, writing: “It is useless to object.”