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Lighting up for the sake of the economy

is_cigarettes_money_070830_msLast updated: April 10, 2010

Source: South China Morning Post

One of the main battlegrounds between China’s giant State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA) and the public health advocates who campaign against it is implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Beijing ratified in 2005.

Under the rule on labelling of cigarette packages, which took effect in January last year, warnings are supposed to cover 50 per cent of the package’s display area. But mainland regulations cover only 30 per cent of the package and the warnings are in tiny characters.

“The STMA has hampered the best way for the public to learn about the harm caused by tobacco,” anti-smoking lobbyist Yang Gonghuan said. “We lobbied hard for the separation of government and the tobacco industry, the use of pictorial warnings on packaging, tax increases and legislation to control secondary smoking. But the tobacco forces remain all-powerful. They once accused us of acting against the national interest by threatening economic growth.”

Another dispute is over advertising. Mainland law bans tobacco advertising but the firms get around this by advertising their brands, with no reference to cigarettes. Most readers know the product; companies are not punished.

In May 2008, for example, the Shanghai Hong Shuang Xi (Red Double Happiness) launched a campaign in the passenger terminals of 11 airports with the slogan “Shanghai Red Double Happiness, Always Bringing You Good Fortune”. The companies also give money to schools, which are named after them.

In December 2008, the Ministry of Civil Affairs was to award six tobacco companies with National Charity awards, because of their donations to schools; in some cases, the names were printed on the school uniforms. Anti-tobacco campaigners persuaded the ministry to drop the firms from the list. The Shanghai government also declined an offer of 200 million yuan (HK$227.34 million) in sponsorship from the city’s tobacco company for the World Expo.

In 2008, the tobacco industry accounted for 7 per cent of national revenue. Such is the power of the industry that the battle against it is difficult and long-term.

The risks of tobacco to health are rarely discussed in the mainstream media and millions of people have no idea that it is harmful. No consumer would ever win a lawsuit against a state tobacco company.

“It is wasteful to spend money on tobacco control,” said Wang Hong, a Zhuhai schoolteacher. “Smoking is too ingrained in the culture and daily life of Chinese. It is a cheap source of pleasure for the poor. The number of smokers who die and fall ill is only a small percentage. They should spend the same money on improving the health system. Spending on new hospitals and higher wages for nurses will be better than spending on anti-cigarette advertisements.”

Written by Mark O’Niell

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