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Smoking Poses Major Dilemma for Mainland

Wang Xiangwei, SCMP – Jun 01, 2009

Yesterday was World No Tobacco Day, but it was very hard to find any genuine effort to use the occasion to discourage smoking on the mainland, the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco.

One of the most notable initiatives came from the awkwardly named Beijing Patriotic Health Committee, a semi-official organisation promoting clean living. It issued a nationwide open letter urging smokers not to light up and retailers not to sell tobacco products for one hour starting from 5.31pm. The mainland media dutifully played up the announcement and reported that more than 20 other cities had taken up the call.

The measure, however, was ridiculed in the mainland’s internet chat rooms.

In a country that sees about a million tobacco-related deaths every year – a quarter of all such deaths worldwide – such a derisory effort says a lot about the mainland’s overall attitude towards smoking.

Some might argue that because the mainland’s health and medical apparatus is devoting its efforts to containing the spread of swine flu, it does not have the time or resources to mark this year’s anniversary seriously. That might be true, but the mainland has never mounted a meaningful campaign to discourage smoking.

This is despite its having signed the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003, which aims to reduce global demand for tobacco products by encouraging developing nations to adopt anti-smoking measures that are now commonplace in developed countries. The mainland ratified the convention in October 2005 and became a full member in 2006.

But time is running out. According to the convention’s implementation timetable, the mainland is required to ban smoking in all indoor public venues, office buildings and on public transport from 2011.

Given its anti-smoking efforts, it is safe to assume that it will fail to meet the deadline unless it takes drastic action immediately.

This would require the leadership to make tobacco control a high priority – instead of merely paying lip-service – and to mobilise the entire national machine, including its massive propaganda apparatus, to tackle the issue.

So far, the government has not shown any inclination to champion the cause.

China is home to about 350 million smokers, with about 3 million people taking up the habit annually. Nearly 60 per cent of males aged 15 or above are smokers, and 540 million people suffer from passive smoking.

The mainland’s culture of cigarette smoking runs very deep and is very pervasive. Most of the founders of the People’s Republic, including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping , were chain smokers.

The central government did not ban smoking in public entertainment venues, including cinemas, stadiums and bookshops, until 1991, nor in airport terminals until 1997.

One sad illustration of the huge difficulties the mainland faces in banning smoking can be seen in the fact that 56.8 per cent of male doctors are smokers – the highest ratio in the world.

The central government only aims to ban smoking in all hospitals in 2011, when the convention timetable kicks in.

Of the many reasons behind the mainland’s pathetic efforts to ban smoking, the biggest is economic. The nation grows a third of the world’s tobacco crops and manufactures a third of its cigarettes, according to the WHO. China’s massive tobacco industry employs more than 20 million farmers and more than 10 million cigarette retailers.

In 2007, the pre-tax revenues from the tobacco industry amounted to 388 billion yuan (HK$440 billion), and it accounted for about 8 per cent of the mainland’s fiscal revenues.

Nearly every city in the country has a cigarette factory and, in a way, it is in the government’s financial interests for the public to continue to puff on cigarettes.

That is the saddest part of the mainland’s dilemma when it comes to banning smoking.

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