BEIJING — OFFICIALS in China are pushing an up-to-date campaign against smoking that applies an ancient lesson from one of China's most glorious dynasties.
Chongzhen, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), failed in an attempt to stamp out smoking because his imperial ministers were fond of tobacco and disregarded his decrees.
The National Health Education Institute is heeding Chongzhen's failure as it tries to overcome resistance from a government that is hooked on the revenue from the world's biggest tobacco market. Rather than compel Beijing to snuff out smoking by fiat as Chongzhen attempted, the institute is going directly to China's 300 million smokers in an effort to curtail demand for cigarettes.
"Chongzhen tried to fight smoking from the top down and it didn't work; we're fighting it from the bottom up," says Zheng Baoyi, the institute's associate director.
The state-funded institute is encouraging Chinese in 10 rural counties across the country to stop smoking as part of a pilot project for a nationwide program. The number of smokers in China could rise dramatically this decade unless the government launches a vigorous effort to discourage Chinese from taking up the habit, says the institute.
If the growth in the number of smokers increases at the current rate, some 80 percent of male farmers in China will be smokers by the year 2000, up from about 64 percent in 1984, the institute says.
Beijing has withheld critical financial support for the institute's grass-roots effort to discourage smoking. To its credit, the government enacted a law Jan. 1 that bans tobacco advertising, restricts smoking in public places and public transportation, forbids smoking by elementary and high school students, and mandates reduced tar in cigarettes. The Tobacco Act also requires health warnings and tar levels to be printed on domestic and imported cigarette packs and toughens laws governing the production,
distribution, sale, and taxation of tobacco.
But critics say the law does not go far enough. It is aimed primarily at eliminating smuggling, retrieving tax revenues from low-level officials, and strengthening other aspects of the state tobacco monopoly. The protection of public health is secondary, say institute officials.
Strapped by a budget deficit, Beijing is too dependent on tobacco revenues to enact a bill aimed at reducing demand for cigarettes, says Mr. Zheng. The tobacco industry, with 500,000 workers annually producing 1.55 trillion cigarettes, gives Beijing more income than any other state industry. It handed over $5.1 billion to the state in 1990.
The industry is particularly essential to poor, remote provinces in the south. Yunnan Province earns 60 percent of its revenues from tobacco; Guizhou Province, 40 percent.
Li Fuchen at the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration contends that the government is more concerned about public health than tobacco earnings. China's tobacco industry reveals the "superiority of socialism," says Mr. Li, a director in the general office of the state monopoly: "The main point is that the tobacco industry does not belong to private institutions but to all China, and so the interests of the government and people are identical."
Still, Zheng at the institute says, "The government asserts that `we are the government, a people's government,' but in the case of the tobacco industry it doesn't work that way." China's tobacco interests pushed the Tobacco Act through to preempt a far more stringent law, Zheng adds.
The institute is attempting to shatter the bedrock of the tobacco industry by persuading rural Chinese to spurn cigarettes. Since June 1990, it has reduced the number of smokers in some counties by 3 to 6 percent.