No smoking in school: China takes on tobacco battle
Can nation of smokers really stub out habit in time for coming ban?
Shanghai. China has committed to banning smoking at public indoor venues
by Jan. 9, 2011, in accordance with a global anti-tobacco treaty backed
by the World Health Organization. But smoking is such a way of life
that China is unlikely to meet the deadline.
By GILLIAN WONG
8/8/2010 12:52:40 PM ET
BEIJING — In China, tobacco companies sponsor schools. Almost
half of all male doctors smoke. And one wedding dinner ritual involves
the bride lighting cigarettes for each of her male guests.
China has committed to banning smoking at public indoor venues by
Jan. 9 next year, in accordance with a global anti-tobacco treaty backed
by the World Health Organization. But smoking is such a way of life
that China is unlikely to meet the deadline, and even the government
seems resigned to failure.
"There are only some months left," said Jiang Yuan, deputy director
of the National Office of Tobacco Control. "And I feel that it is
extremely difficult to reach that goal…China is facing a tremendous
challenge in tobacco control."
Smoking is linked to the deaths of at least 1 million people in China
every year. The WHO cites a projection by Oxford University professor
Sir Richard Peto that of the young Chinese men alive today, one in three
will die from tobacco.
"You’re talking about one in three of the Tsinghua University male
graduates, one in three of the male CEOs of high-tech businesses, one in
three engineers, one in three scientists, one in three policymakers and
military leaders," said Dr. Sarah England, who runs the WHO’s Tobacco
Free Initiative in China. "It becomes a question of national interest."
Over the past several years, China has banned tobacco advertising on
radio, television and newspapers and outlawed smoking in some places,
such as on airplanes. During the 2008 Olympics, Beijing and other host
cities in China went smoke-free.
In recent months, China banned smoking at pavilions and restaurants
in the Shanghai Expo, as well as the Health Ministry’s own 19-story
office building in Beijing — the first central government agency to
prohibit puffing indoors. Weeks ago, authorities also instructed
kindergartens and elementary, secondary and vocational schools to ban
smoking on campus and bar teachers from lighting up in front of
But health authorities are still losing the fight against a habit
that has wafted into nearly every corner of society, backed by a
powerful state-owned tobacco monopoly. The rate of smoking has not
changed significantly, and tobacco production has actually gone up.
Earlier this year, the Chinese media buzzed with reports of a
3-year-old girl hooked on smoking. Photos posted on the Internet showed
round-cheeked Xing Yawen sitting on a chair taking a drag from a
The child’s mother said Yawen started smoking possibly due to trauma
after being hit by a truck in February last year. "In the past, we
worked too hard and maybe we neglected her," 33-year-old Gao Shuli said
by phone. "The child is too small and knows nothing, but smoking will
affect her entire future."
The WHO agreement requires countries to fight smoking through
measures that include raising cigarette prices and taxes, mandating
health warnings on cigarette packs and banning tobacco advertising.
Parties are also expected to ensure that all indoor public places,
workplaces and public transport are smoke-free within five years of the
treaty coming into force — which in China’s case was on Jan. 9, 2006.
Parties must periodically report to one another on their efforts, and
China is due to do so in January. Nearly 170 countries are signatories
to the treaty, including the United States, although it has not yet
Andy Wong / AP
Making public spaces smoke-free is a challenge for many countries —
only 17 have policies that provide effective protection from secondhand
smoke, the WHO says, including New Zealand, Colombia, the United Kingdom
and Iran. In China, cigarettes are handed out as gifts to family and
bribes to officials. Even in large cities like Beijing, people light up
in bars and restaurants, elevators, hotel lobbies and government
Forty percent of civil servants recently surveyed in eastern Jiangsu
province smoke, lighting an average of 12.4 cigarettes a day. And all
but 5 percent do so at work, according to the provincial center for
disease control and prevention. Meanwhile, nearly half of male doctors
in China smoke, according to Jiang, who conducted a recent study in 31
provinces and cities.
"The biggest obstacle is the lack of awareness," Jiang said. "If
people realize passive smoking will also cause lung cancer, will they
still allow people around them to smoke?"
There is also an apparent conflict of interest: China’s State Tobacco
Monopoly Administration, which sets tobacco policy and enforces rules,
is the same federal agency that controls the China National Tobacco
Corp. — the world’s largest cigarette maker.
One result of this paradox is that control efforts are piecemeal.
Warnings on Chinese cigarette packages are in tiny characters and take
up only a third of the design — which critics say falls short of the WHO
agreement’s requirements. Tobacco tax increases are absorbed by
companies and never passed down to smokers.
"The tobacco industry has traditionally been central within
government and really very important," said Judith Mackay, a World Lung
Foundation senior policy adviser. "It’s a really serious problem."
The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration did not respond to a
request for comment. Mackay says its position has always focused on the
possible economic impact of raising cigarette taxes, arguing that it
would reduce revenue to the government and put tobacco farmers out of
Many experts say otherwise. Raising the tax on a pack of cigarettes
by 1 yuan ($0.15) would increase the Chinese government’s revenue by $17
billion and reduce the number of smokers by 3.4 million, according to a
study led by Teh-wei Hu, professor emeritus in health economics at the
University of California, Berkeley.
China National Tobacco Corp.’s general manager Jiang Chengkang said
in January that the company made 513 billion yuan ($76 billion) in
profit and taxes last year, a 12 percent increase over the previous
year. Tobacco companies say school sponsorship is their way of giving
back to society.
In celebration of Children’s Day in June, students from an elementary
school sponsored by the famous Hongta cigarette company were taken on a
tour of a cigarette-rolling factory in northeastern Shenyang, according
to a report on TobaccoChina Online, a website catering to the tobacco
industry. Prominently displayed on the grounds of another such school is
the slogan: "Talent stems from hard work, tobacco helps you become
Associated Press researcher Xi Yue contributed to this report.
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