Failing to stub out


On January 6, a report entitled “Smoking control and China’s future” was officially released by the China Disease Prevention and Control Centre’s Tobacco Control Office. The report’s main conclusion is that “China’s anti-tobacco policies have not been effective during the last five years.”

In 2003, China signed the “WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control”, the world’s first tobacco control treaty, which was unanimously adopted by the World Health Organization’s 192 member states. The convention’s key aims include an increase in tobacco prices, taxes and the implementation of measures to restrict smoking in public places, preventing any exposure to second hand tobacco smoke. Nevertheless, five years after the adoption of the treaty, China still doesn’t have comprehensive anti-smoking legislation. According to the report “Smoking control and China’s future”, China scored only 37.3 out of 100 possible points for its efforts to enforce smoking ban policies – one of the lowest ratings amongst the signatories of the convention. 

Apart from the health problems, it’s an easy life for China’s 300-million smokers. Statistics show that they spend an average of 5 yuan (about US$0.76) for a packet of cigarettes, a price equivalent to two bottles of Coke. Furthermore, if you are enjoying a meal in a restaurant, you don’t have to go outside and shiver in the cold for a cigarette break – in China, smoking is allowed almost everywhere, offices and karaoke clubs included. Due to a lack of legal restrictions, a national ban on smoking in public places seems difficult to achieve. Thus far, China’s Ministry of Health has only succeeded in implementing measures to ban smoking in hospitals.

How can health not be considered in the price? According to the report, every year tobacco-related illnesses cause the death of 1.2 million Chinese people and, unless more effective measures are taken to discourage tobacco use, this number is expected to rise to 3.5 million by 2030. But the price paid by people because of tobacco-related illnesses or death far outweighs the tax contributions made by the tobacco industry, which in China last year amounted to 600 million yuan (US$91 billion). 

In China, tobacco advertising is officially forbidden. However, tobacco companies circumvent these restrictions, opting for the so-called “image advertising”, which does not promote tobacco products but only tobacco brand names. Chinese media are constantly broadcasting tobacco brands, increasing their business activity. Stop-smoking consultation services by contrast are not so well sponsored. I have encountered very few Chinese people who successfully quit smoking, all of whom, without exception, relied only on their own willpower. In the United Kingdom, there are advertisements everywhere encouraging smokers to turn to hospitals or other structures to seek help, where they can also obtain free aids to help them give up. 

It’s even more absurd that cigarettes have unexpectedly become a symbol of identity and culture. During a get-together with some friends in China, I took out my packet of Marlboro, but one of my friends pushed my hand away to offer a local cigarette brand and said: “Smoke this one, it’s better.” This opinion has been shaped by the recent “low tar and low harm” marketing strategies pursued by a famous national tobacco company, which sells its cigarettes on the Chinese market at a price equivalent to four packs of Marlboro. By adopting forceful marketing strategies, this famous cigarette brand symbolises attractiveness and is currently very popular among Chinese smokers, who also give cigarettes as gifts, as part of their culture. 

The Chinese government is setting a bad example by not overseeing the tobacco industry properly, as it seems to be an essential source of public money for many local governments. It is thus not surprising that expensive cigarette brands which advertise “senior-level pleasure” are particularly suitable for high ranking officials and the gift market. In late 2008, Zhou Jiuzheng, a former director of a real-estate management bureau in Nanjing, was convicted of accepting bribes and thus sentenced to 11 years in prison. The sentence was possibly owing to a picture on the web that captured him holding a 150 yuan (US$15) pack of cigarettes in his hand, while attending a meeting. 

This is the umpteenth demonstration of the Chinese government’s mild and indulgent attitude towards the tobacco industry, which is not beneficial and also increases the price that China pays for its citizens health and the country’s reputation.