With more smokers than the population of the US, China tries to cut down

Some 320 million people in China enjoy filling their heads with smoke.
Some 320 million people in China enjoy filling their heads with smoke.
Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
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China has one of the world’s highest rates of smoking, with about 320 million people—a fourth of the world’s population of smokers, and more than the US population—lighting up daily. But officials may be getting more serious about helping the country kick its nicotine habit. Increasing concerns over public health and a change in leadership could go a long way in overturning the deeply entrenched role cigarettes play in Chinese business and politics, according to a recent analysis.

While other countries are forcing cigarette makers to remove their logos or increase the size of health warnings, tobacco companies in China have have been able to market to Chinese consumers largely as they please. That’s because China’s regulator of the tobacco industry is also the owner of the country’s, as well as the world’s, largest cigarette producer. The state-owned China National Tobacco works to block anti-smoking campaigns and ensures that companies always sell a certain amount of cheap cigarettes—for as little as 5 renminbi ($0.80) a pack.

But there are signs that some things are changing. Cheng Li, a scholar at the Brookings Institution said in an update this month on a previous report on the Chinese tobacco industry that China’s newest generation of leaders appear more motivated than their predecessors to build a positive image with the public—a desire that should make them more sensitive to public health issues. Public health has become a priority especially in light of anger over air and water pollution and China’s rising rates of cancer. One million Chinese are estimated to die every year from tobacco-related illnesses, according to the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. Chinese researchers argue that if current rates of tobacco consumption continue, it will cause a third of all deaths of middle-aged Chinese men within the next decade.

No wonder the government is ramping up anti-smoking efforts. Last year, the government released, for the first time, a report detailing the health hazards of smoking. Officials recently pledged to eliminate smoking in all public places across the country by 2015.

There’s no guarantee that anti-smoking measures will work. A 2011 ban on smoking in all indoor public spaces has been poorly observed, according to the health ministry. China has banned cigarette ads on television, print media, movies or in stadiums and any waiting rooms, but not in advertising online or outdoors. Marketing is still so pervasive that nearly nine in 10 Chinese children (paywall) surveyed could identify at least one cigarette brand by its logo, according to a study published Sept. 30.

More broadly, the Chinese government depends heavily on the tobacco industry. Li observes that revenues from tobacco companies made up between 7% to 10% of the government’s tax revenues, and almost half of tax revenues in some provinces like Yunnan, one of the country’s biggest tobacco producing regions.

Thus, the most important change to be made may not be government policy but a shift in the cultural significance of smoking. High-end cigarettes are social currency, exchanged as a gesture of respect between business partners and officials. For men, who account for the bulk of China’s smokers, smoking evokes an image of power—Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were both chain smokers.

This too might be changing. In 1996, up to 60% of male doctors in China smoked and saw cigarettes as a sign of professional success but that rate has fallen to about 40% today, comparable to rates among doctors the US in the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, Li and others point out, in contrast to past party leadership, the new administration is light on smokers. Within the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, only three of the incumbent and thus most senior members smoke, and even then never do so in public, according to Li. Xi Jinping is also rarely seen smoking in public.

Ivy Chen contributed reporting.