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Big tobacco firms obscuring the anti-smoking message

May 31, 2012

World No Tobacco Day today puts the spotlight on China, and not just because the mainland’s estimated 350 million smokers consume 40 per cent of the world’s tobacco. The mainland is also a case study in the theme of this year’s no-tobacco day – interference by the tobacco industry designed to frustrate anti-smoking efforts.

According to a new report by the authorities there on health development, tobacco control and preventive medicine, eight key tactics are used by the monopoly state-owned China National Tobacco Corp and its regulator, the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, to sabotage anti-smoking efforts. They range from a refusal to include graphic images in health warnings on cigarette packs, to undermining moves to raise taxes and prices, and conning the public into believing that cigarettes with less tar are less harmful and that blending Chinese herbs into cigarette tobacco makes it less harmful.

With the government trying to make health care more affordable and rolling out national insurance, the huge profits and tax revenue harvested from the tobacco industry have to be weighed against the costs of medical treatment and admissions to hospital for smoking-related diseases and lost productivity.

As Hong Kong and other places have found, price combined with education are the most effective weapons against smoking. And the most effective target is young people, before they become heavily addicted and earn enough to absorb the increasing cost.

The industry argues that it delivers a social benefit as well as a fiscal benefit, with more than 20 million farmers growing tobacco, 10 million involved in retailing it and 520,000 processing it in factories. Given that an effective anti-smoking campaign would make incremental progress, the industry would have time to gradually restructure. It is time Beijing showed the willpower to quit dependence on this deadly crop.

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