Chinese officials are exploring ways to curb smoking as deaths mount and medical costs rise, an effort that has generated one proposal to take apart the nation’s vast and politically connected government-run tobacco monopoly.
Within the next year, China’s legislators will accelerate efforts to enact a national regulation banning smoking in public places in China, said Yang Jie, deputy director of Tobacco Control Office for the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at a news briefing on tobacco-related health problems in China. Mr. Yang said China’s State Council, the country’s cabinet, is currently planning the regulation and it is expected to be enacted next year.
“We can see what is happening in the rest of the world,” said Mr. Yang, suggesting that China is due to follow the smoking cessation trends of other countries.
The statement follows the release of a book by China’s Central Party School, an elite Chinese Communist Party think tank, in recent months urging officials to shake up China’s tobacco monopoly, which is responsible for tobacco production and sales and has the freedom to donate to schools and sell cigarette cartons without pictures of black lungs for warnings. Its authors call for higher tobacco taxes, halting government financing to tobacco companies and encouraging them to find alternative business models.
China’s State Tobacco Monopoly Administration wasn’t immediately available for comment. The tobacco industry pulled in 865 billion yuan ($142.5 billion) from taxes and profit in 2012, up 16% from a year earlier, according to the State Tobacco administration.
China is the world’s largest consumer and producer of tobacco, home to more than 300 million smokers and 43% of the world’s cigarette production, according to the American Cancer Society and the World Lung Foundation. Tobacco is also a leading cause of death in China, causing 1.2 million deaths annually and expected to cause 3.5 million deaths annually by 2030, the groups said.
Nearly nine out of 10 Chinese children aged 5 and 6 are able to identify at least one cigarette brand, according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University on the effects of tobacco marketing on children in low- and middle-income countries. “Rather than thinking ‘I’m going to be Superman,’ young boys are aspiring to smoke,” said Bernhard Schwartländer, the World Health Organization’s representative in China.
The party-school book said the government should develop measures to deal with “conflicts of interest” between the tobacco industry and the government, that it should reform the tobacco industry and enforce lower production of tobacco.
Health experts say policy recommendations and potential legislation are promising signs of structural change.
But changing the current system won’t be easy. Beijing has said long said it is determined to tackle the country’s smoking problem, but so far has had little success. Cigarettes remain cheap, with many available for less than $1 a pack. The World Health Organization recommended last year that China triple its tobacco tax to 70% to discourage young would-be smokers from buying.
The country’s main tobacco companies are state-owned and feed revenue into state coffers, which activists have long said conflicts with the country’s efforts to address smoking’s harmful effects. The current deputy director of China’s State Tobacco Monopoly Administration is the brother of China’s premier, Li Keqiang.
Attempts in previous years to ban advertising for cigarettes on radio, television and newspapers have largely failed, experts say, adding that cigarette companies have found loopholes in the restrictions, placing their logo on advertisements for other companies’ products. The Ministry of Health issued a ban on smoking in 28 types of public places, such as hotels, restaurants and theaters, but it lacks the authority to enforce the ban.
Several major cities, such as Tianjin, Harbin and Guangzhou, have already passed smoke-free bans preventing smoking in public buildings. Beijing implemented a smoking ban several years ago to limit smoking and the effects of second-hand smoke in public buildings and restaurants.
Still, enforcement of laws even in cities that have them remains one of the largest obstacles in China, said Gregory Yingnien Tsang, a tobacco control specialist who advises the Beijing Municipal Health Bureau. “In Beijing, we have laws to ban smoking, but have you ever seen anyone not smoking?” Mr. Tsang said, adding that businesses that violate laws should be fined.