By: Our Correspondent

smoker1

Photo by Jeff Murphy

In April,
Guangzhou and Jiangmen in Guangdong province became two of 20 cities
across China to try a bold experiment: a total ban on smoking
in public places, including schools, restaurants and government
offices. Officials had to be specially trained to enforce the
regulations, imposed at the behest of the National Center for Disease
Control and Prevention in Beijing, one of the leaders in the
country’s nascent campaign against smoking.

But it is
an uphill and probably losing battle, because its adversaries are not
only well-financed and powerful tobacco firms, but also because
they are state-owned and the government earns 10 per cent of its
annual revenue from smoking, making the industry the country’s
biggest single taxpayer.

China is
modernizing in a great many ways but on tobacco it is bucking a
global trend driven by the awareness that smoking is a public health
menace. In the United States, smoking rates have fallen by about half
over the last 30 years as higher taxes and anti-smoking campaigns
have taken their toll. Other developed nations are following that
path. But among according to a 2002 World Health Organization report,
the Western Pacific, which covers East Asia and the Pacific has the
world’s highest smoking rate, with nearly two-thirds of men
smoking. China tops the region.

While
other countries in Asia, such as Indonesia and Thailand, have powerful
tobacco industries that are resisting efforts to cut smoking, nowhere
is the battle harder than in China. At the annual meeting of the
National People’s Congress (NPC) in March, 30 lawmakers
proposed a national ban on smoking in public, which brought a swift
and unexpected response from Zhang Baozhen, deputy chief of the State
Tobacco Monopoly.

“Smoking
harms people’s health but restraining smoking threatens social
stability,” Zhang said. “Smokers rioted when the former
Soviet Union collapsed because they could not get any cigarettes. The
principle applies in China too. As a developing country, China still
needs the tobacco industry,” he said, adding that it
contributed 830 million yuan a day in taxes last year.

Zhang
struck exactly the right note, especially during the NPC, where the
issue of social stability tops the national agenda. To government
planners, the tobacco statistics are irrefutable. In 2005, tobacco
contributed 240 billion yuan in taxes and profits to the state, up
from 210 billion in 2004 and more than double 105 billion in 2000.
This increase is because the number of smokers is rising and they are
buying more expensive brands.

The 15
tobacco monopoly delegates at the NPC pressed the point. “The
high GDP growth of recent years and rising living standards have
created an excellent environment and market potential for our
industry,” said Lu Reigang, a representative of the tobacco delegates.

It is an
industry, they pointed out, that employs 500,000 workers directly,
with four million more in the retail chain, and buys leaf from 3.6
million farmers. To this can be added producers of cigarette
machines, wrapping paper, packaging and other ancillary parts and
equipment. Of China’s top 500 taxpayers in 2005, 82 were
tobacco firms.

Liu
Yangzhe, deputy director of the Economic Operations division of the
State Planning and Reform Commission, said that the tobacco industry
holds a very important place in the national economy and it was
impossible in the short term for those working in it to find other
employment.

What is
missing from all these glowing statistics, of course, is the other
side of the balance sheet – the health cost of treating the
millions of people who suffer from tobacco-related diseases, an issue
that is rarely mentioned in public in China.

Anti-smoking
campaigners estimate that one million people die each year from such
diseases and that this number will double by 2020 and put the annual
health costs at about 40 billion yuan. For them, the figures are
apocalyptic – China has 350 million smokers, 37 per cent of the
population; one third of the total smokers in the world. The
number is rising by 10 million to 20 million a year.

It is embedded in the culture. The easiest way to start a conversation is
to offer a cigarette; two or four cartons (double, not single
numbers) of high-quality brands make a good present for an
anniversary; and sharing a good brand is an excellent way to round off
a business dinner with an important client.

Public
awareness of the health risks is low, largely as a result of the
government’s unwillingness to publicize the issue. Surveys
found that 70 per cent of smokers do not want to stop and only 17 per
cent do. Of China’s male doctors, more than 60 percent smoke
and half said that they had never heard of nicotine substitutes and
45 per cent said that they had, but had never used them. Health
Minister Gao Qiang is a smoker.

Another
reason not to take action is that the industry has resisted the flood
of private and foreign capital into China over the last 20 years and
remains a state monopoly, meaning that the government collects the
revenue directly, without the need for tax inspectors or audits of
dubious accounts.

Embarrassment
among western nations over the risks of smoking kept it off the
agenda of China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, so
China has no pressure or incentive to open the sector –
certainly not from the anti-smoking lobby, which is weak and poorly
funded. The China Association on Tobacco Control, in Beijing, relies
largely on volunteers and said that its proposals to cut smoking met
a fierce response from local governments, which want to preserve
their factories and their jobs and maintain a cheap vice for ordinary
people.

The only
good news for the association was the government’s decision to
sign the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on
Tobacco Control in August 2005. It calls for a ban on tobacco vending
machines and for all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship
on radio, television, print media and the Internet to be phased out
in five years.

Words are
one thing but China’s habit runs deep and it seems doubtful the
country will put down its smokes anytime soon.