China’s war on smoking is being foiled by the state-owned tobacco industry

These things aren’t going out.
These things aren’t going out.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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China’s lawmakers recently called for a complete ban on tobacco advertising—the latest move in a campaign to curb cigarette use in a nation where an estimated 320 million people (more than half of men; only 2% of women) smoke. But before the bill could be sent to parliament, the state tobacco monopoly managed to remove the ban and then blocked efforts to reintroduce it.  

Curbing smoking in a country where cigarettes are cheap, knowledge about their harmful effects is limited, and the state-run tobacco industry provides as much as 10 percent of the country’s tax revenues, was never going to be easy. Further complicating matters is the fact that the deputy director of the tobacco lobby is Li Keming, the younger brother of premier Li Keqiang. The younger Li has worked in the tobacco industry for 30 years.

It’s a relationship that analysts said years ago could undermine China’s efforts to curb smoking. A 2012 Brookings Institution report (pdf, pg. 76), written by the institution’s China head Cheng Li (and dedicated to the author’s brother who “died prematurely from smoking-related causes”), warned:

Li’s personal/family ties with the tobacco industry might have prevented him from making a real effort to constrain cigarette production and consumption in the country.

Whether Li’s family ties have in any way actually influenced the recent gutting of the advertising law is unknown. But despite growing public awareness of the harmful effects of smoking and a ban on government officials smoking in public, there’s no sign that Chinese smokers are actually cutting down. In fact, the reverse appears to be true—China’s tax revenue from tobacco last year was 865 billion yuan ($141 billion), a 16% rise from 2011.

That’s not all—China’s tobacco monopoly is looking to expand its remit, and “considering establishing a state monopoly over e-cigarettes,” China Daily reported this week. China Tobacco is even looking at launching its own line of e-cigarettes in order to cash in on the vaping craze.  China already manufactures an estimated 70% of the e-cigarettes sold worldwide, and there are no restrictions on who can buy them in China, despite the WHO’s calls to ban sales to children.