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Uphill battle to curb tobacco giants


The state-owned tobacco monopoly is undermining national anti-smoking efforts, according to campaigners and health experts on the mainland
Zhuang Pinghui
May 26, 2012

Anti-smoking campaigners and health experts have outlined eight tactics they say the mainland’s tobacco monopoly is using to undermine national efforts to curb the spread of the addictive product.

But they are fighting an uphill battle as the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, the government agency responsible for policy and enforcing regulations, such as warnings on packaging, controls the China National Tobacco Corporation, a state-owned monopoly and the largest single manufacturer of tobacco products in the world.

“China’s tobacco industry has taken advantage of its integration with a government agency to interfere and counter efforts to honour China’s commitment to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control,” said Dr Yang Gonghuan , director of the National Office of Tobacco Control.

A report, released on Thursday by the Think Tank Research Centre for Health Development, the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control and Chinese Preventive Medicine Association, listed eight key tactics tobacco firms use to counter anti-smoking efforts.

For instance, companies refuse to incorporate an image into the warnings on cigarette packaging, and have undermined the drive to raise tobacco taxes and prices, misleading the public into thinking that cigarettes with less tar are less harmful.

The report also criticises the industry for downplaying the treaty’s legal obligations, and whitewashing the health threat smoking and secondary smoking poses.

With 40 per cent of the world’s tobacco consumed on the mainland, cigarette sales have been the nation’s top source of tax revenue since 1987. Those earnings have grown at a double-digit pace since 2003, which is often why authorities are resistant to activists’ efforts to curb smoking.

Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, re-elected this week as head of the World Health Organisation, denounced the tobacco industry in March as a “ruthless and devious enemy” that used its deep pockets to stymie efforts to curb smoking.

WHO has made industry interference the theme of this year’s “World No Tobacco Day”, which will fall on Thursday.

China ratified a framework convention in September 2005, but missed its deadline last year to ban smoking in all indoor public areas.

The requisite legislation has not even been drafted, after which it is usually submitted for public consultation before heading to the National People’s Congress.

Some cities have passed laws that are close to fulfilling the convention’s obligations. For example, Harbin , in Heilongjiang , banned smoking in all public indoor areas, including workplaces.

“Tobacco companies use a wide rage of tactics, legal and illegal, to introduce, promote and sell their products,” said Dr Susan Henderson, a technical adviser for the Tobacco Free Initiative with WHO.

“For instance, they falsely legitimise themselves as a responsible corporate citizen, often through sponsorships. In China, it was demonstrated by the sponsorship of schools after the earthquake in Sichuan.”

Some local tobacco corporations have also established scholarships for impoverished pupils.

The report accused the China National Tobacco Corporation of misleading the public by trumpeting research that “Chinese-style” cigarettes, mixed with Chinese herbs, reduced the associated health damage.

The tobacco administration has ignored years of appeal by advocates to include images on the warnings on packaging, the report says.

The warnings that do appear are written in tiny letters and fail to specify the harm smoking causes, falling far below what the convention requires. The same brand of cigarettes, such as Chunghwa and Double Happiness, sold in overseas markets come in packaging that carries dramatic warnings that include images.

Anti-smoking advocates say the administration has hampered their powerful weapon of preventing young people from taking up smoking in the first place, by avoiding price increases and blunting the effect of tobacco tax increases by the Ministry of Finance.

Miao Wei , the minister of industry and information technology which administers the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, said in March that the ministry was still working on whether and how to increase tobacco products tax and price, and change the warnings on packaging.

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