Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette

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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.