Clear The Air News Tobacco Blog Rotating Header Image

Yunnan’s tobacco boom

The Economist

Poisonous gift

In China’s south-west, a smoker’s paradise

Jan 28th 2012 | YUXI | from the print edition

omes with few warnings

IN 1643 Fang Yizhi, a Chinese scholar, wrote that smoking tobacco for too long would “blacken the lungs” and lead to death. The then-emperor, Chongzhen, didn’t bother with warning labels. He outlawed growing and smoking the leaf. Violators were to be beheaded. (As it happens, a year later, the Ming dynasty and Chongzhen were both dead, neither from blackened lungs.)

Attitudes to smoking have changed somewhat since then. Today a carton of smokes is one of the most popular gifts in China, especially at the Chinese new year. In tobacco-rich Yunnan, the cigarette industry is a local pillar. Many advances over the centuries have taken place in the processing, packaging and marketing of tobacco. Top-end brands can sell for $25 a packet (and some are proudly labelled “organic”). On health warnings however, progress has been slight: packets bear a simple, generic message printed in text, with no eye-catching images.

That is because the cigarette-makers want it that way. China’s tobacco industry is both owned and regulated by the government. It makes and sells more than two-fifths of the world’s cigarettes—2.4 trillion in 2011, 3% more than in 2010. The government says the industry took in profits and tax receipts of 753 billion yuan ($119 billion) in 2011, an annual increase of over a fifth. Production, sales and tax receipts are likely to increase for years to come.

As a signatory to a World Health Organisation tobacco-control treaty, China is, rather awkwardly in the face of these projections, meant to reduce smoking. The country has more than 300m smokers, close to a third of the global total. Cigarettes are still the currency of masculinity, especially in rural China, and more than half of Chinese men smoke. About 1m Chinese die each year from smoking-related illnesses.

More explicit warning labels would help. The government is mandating a larger font size on its labels from April 1st, and is pondering whether to make the labels more dramatic, using gruesome images. However, the cigarette-makers are powerful, and the Ministry of Health is not. “If you really were to use disgusting images, that would hurt the function of cigarettes as a gift,” says He Youfei of Hongta, one tobacco group, sitting in the company’s canteen (smoking permitted).

Hongta, or Red Pagoda, is China’s largest cigarette-maker by retail sales, and the fifth-largest in the world, selling more than 270 billion cigarettes a year. If Hongta is the Philip Morris of China, then Yuxi is its Richmond, Virginia (see map). The city, with a population of more than 2m, has a Hongta Hotel and a Hongta golf course. The company sponsors more than a dozen primary schools in the region, each called “Hongta Hope” (there are also “Tobacco Hope” schools elsewhere). A tobacco museum in Yuxi boasts pictures of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping leading the revolution with cigarettes in the vanguard, along with testimonials to smoking’s good effects (Mao lived to 82, Deng to 92).

It was a Western imperialist firm, British American Tobacco, that created China’s modern tobacco industry in the early 20th century, but Mao nationalised the industry after seizing power in 1949. People’s Liberation Army soldiers were issued cigarettes, and families were given tobacco vouchers. In the public consciousness, the cigarette still remains closely tied to the state. One of the most popular brands is named Zhongnanhai, after the forbidden compound in Beijing where the country’s leaders reside. The cigarettes were favoured by Chairman Mao himself.

“The industry and the government are one family,” says Li Xiaoliang of Pioneers for Health Consultancy Centre, an anti- tobacco NGO in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital. That makes her task rather delicate. She thinks that the country needs one of its leaders to come out against smoking. For Ms Li, there is a risk in her work. “If we’re against the industry, it seems that we’re against the government.”

from the print edition | China

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>