Coming slowly to 300 million Chinese puffers: smoke-free zones

Despite a new smoke-free zone at Peking University, China is making only half-hearted efforts to dissuade people from smoking.

By , Staff Writer

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    Visitors enjoy the Great Wall in Mutianyu, China, on June 28.
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In the mad urban grind of Beijing, the green lawns and spreading trees of Peking University’s bucolic campus offer a rare respite. 

They will soon offer something even rarer in China, if the university authorities get their way: a smoke-free zone.

The university this week banned smoking anywhere on campus – even outdoors – and outlawed the sale of tobacco in any of its shops. Students and teachers caught smoking three times will be ineligible for any prizes, and faculty members still on probation will not be hired, according to the new rules.

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This is the latest in a string of generally half-hearted official efforts to dissuade people from smoking in China, the biggest consumer and producer of tobacco in the world, where more than 300 million adults smoke daily. Several million children under 15 have not been counted.

That figure has remained unchanged for nearly a decade, and government critics say the authorities are not doing enough to persuade smokers to give up. “The tobacco forces remain all-powerful,” Yang Gonghuan, deputy head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control told the UN World Health Organization bulletin last year.

That is partly because tobacco is a state monopoly in China, bringing in $93 billion in direct revenues and an additional $77 billion in tax – 7 percent of total taxes – in 2009, according to official figures.

It does not help that the agency responsible for warning citizens of the dangers of smoking, the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, works hand in glove with the state owned China National Tobacco Company, which produces and sells cigarettes. The two organizations share a website and a board of directors.

“They share the same staff who have conflicts of interest,” points out Wang Ke-an, founder of the Think Tank Research Center for Health Development. “It would be very helpful if the company was separated from the government.”

That so many people smoke in China – 57 percent of men smoking makes the habit normal here – is hardly surprising when you consider that fewer than 25 percent of Chinese know that smoking is harmful to their health, according to the WHO.

“Ordinary people are not aware of the risks they run by smoking, and not enough is being done to warn them,” says Sarah England, a tobacco expert with the WHO in Beijing.

That is clear from cigarette packs, whose simple warnings in tiny print that “smoking is harmful to your health, quitting smoking early is good for your health” fall well short of the standards that China adopted as legally binding when it signed on to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005.

Not only do tobacco companies shy away from of alerting consumers to the dangers of their product, they go out of their way to encourage youngsters to smoke, often with official sanction. Tobacco companies are allowed to sponsor schools, plastering their walls with slogans such as “tobacco helps you grow up and become accomplished,” and paying for school uniforms emblazoned with their logos.

The government has not been wholly inactive in the face of the tobacco lobby’s fierce tactics, however. It has banned tobacco advertising in newspapers and magazines and on TV and billboards, it made big international events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo smoke-free, and the 12th  Five Year Plan, unveiled earlier this year, pledges to ban smoking in all public places “in a comprehensive manner.”

Last May Beijing issued regulations banning smoking in restaurants, hotels and public transport, but they are only spottily applied. “The biggest challenge is to enforce the rules,” says Dr. Wang. “The main problem is that the regulations do not specify who is to enforce them, nor how violators should be punished.”

The results of such vagueness are clear in hospitals. More than three years after the Ministry of Health banned smoking in China’s 20,000 hospitals, only half of them have started to do anything about it, according to Dr. England.

The same is true in schools and universities. The rules that Peking University introduced this week are designed to comply with guidelines issued by the Ministry of Education 18 months ago. An undercover investigation of 800 schools and colleges earlier this year by the independent Chinese Association for Tobacco Control, however, found only 16 institutions making any real effort to enforce the ministerial diktat.

The authorities’ ambivalence towards tobacco was graphically illustrated this week when a row broke out in the august ranks of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. A number of prestigious academicians publicly protested the elevation to their ranks of Xie Jianping, a scientist working for a research institute belonging to the China National Tobacco Company.

Dr. Xie’s contribution to science has been to claim that the addition of Chinese herbs to cigarettes makes them less harmful. “How can a researcher working on a fake subject, a technician who helps to sell death, become an academician?” wondered Chen Junshi, a member of the Academy of Engineering, in the China Youth Daily newspaper.

This official ambivalence towards tobacco means that reducing its use in China “will be a long term job,” says Wang.

But the government’s total control over the tobacco industry has a potential upside, suggests Dr. England, even if the authorities still appear to be afraid that cutting the number of Chinese smokers could undermine an important industry at a time of economic uncertainty.

A 2008 study by Chinese and Swedish scientists found that the direct medical costs and indirect economic costs linked to smoking in China outweighed the tobacco industry’s profits and tax revenues. “Once China’s leaders are convinced that it is not in the country’s best interests, they have the power to sunset this industry,” says England. “The challenge we have now is to persuade them that this is not good for the economy.”

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