left corner left corner
China Daily Website

Hide our dirty ashtray today

Updated: 2012-05-31 15:52
By Li Yang ( chinadaily.com.cn)

Today is the 25th World No Tobacco Day. The World Health Organization has chosen "tobacco industry interference" as the theme for today to expose and counter the tobacco industry's attempts to undermine the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

After beating around the bush for 25 years, this year's theme hits the nail on the head and exposes the real enemy of public health. As Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO, said in the keynote speech of 15th World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Singapore on March 20: "The enemy, the tobacco industry, has changed its face and its tactics. The wolf is no longer in sheep's clothing, and its teeth are bared."

As a party of WHO FCTC since 2003 and a country of 350 million smokers and 740 million second-hand smokers, China should seriously reflect its State-owned tobacco industry's interference in its tobacco control on this occasion. It is not only related to China's national image as a credible and civilized country in the international community, but also concerns the grievous public health issue caused by tobacco use.

China is constantly careful in fulfilling the commitments of various international conventions as a responsible country. But WHO FCTC is an exception. China received a Dirty Ashtray Award from the NGO Framework Convention Alliance after China's representatives made excuses for not printing warning pictures on cigarette packets at the third Conference of WHO FCTC in 2008. Six years have passed since the WHO FCTC took effect in China in 2006. There is still a long way to go for China in all fields of tobacco control to meet the requirements of the convention now.

China Tobacco, the State-run tobacco company, even carries articles on its website to tell smokers, especially young smokers, "how to smoke healthily".

The gigantic size of the smoking population in China, one third of the world’s total, has basically not changed and China's tobacco production and consumption have actually been on the rise for years. Annual deaths caused by smoking are predicted to rise from 1.2 million in 2005 to 2 million in 2020.

Neither the shameful Dirty Ashtray Award, nor the horrific deaths of millions of its smokers have prompted China's tobacco industry to think again. Or it just chooses to not think on purpose and continues to sleep in its rosy, though solid, contentment and self-confidence. The tobacco industry contributed 752.9 billion yuan ($119.5 billion) in tax in 2011, about 6 percent of the annual fiscal revenue of the central government. The percentage has remained at this level for years.

Many tobacco control experts believe the central authorities have actually been taken over by the tobacco industry without considering the losses caused by tobacco use in China. The report Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults issued by the Public Health Service of the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2012 suggests that about 443,000 smokers die each year in the US now and cigarette smoking costs the US $96 billion in direct medical costs and $97 billion in lost productivity annually. The cost and loss in China can be imagined accordingly.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention's report suggests that China's State-owned tobacco industry actually started losing money from 1999. Today's tobacco industry is comparable to the infamous opium industry that enervated China in the 19th century. It is only lucrative for the manufacturer. Every penny earned by it comes along with its bite of people's health. Nicotine addiction, instead of creativity, is the most reliable and profitable asset for this industry.

Dependency on tobacco is engineered, especially in the case of smoking, by carefully-prepared formulations of more than 1,000 chemical and other ingredients. The tobacco industry markets a product that, unlike other legally sold goods, kills up to half of its regular users when consumed as per the directions of the manufacturer.

Its stable contribution to government's financial revenue together with its State ownership makes China's tobacco industry almost fearless of relevant legislation, policy-making and marketing. In China, the tobacco industry, as their international counterparts, undoubtedly exaggerates the economic importance of the industry to society at large and tries its best to manipulate public opinion to build a halo of respectability around it and discredit proven science.

Take legislation as an example. Past experience from abroad indicates legislation at the national level is the most effective way to strengthen tobacco control. Today, Harbin in Heilongjiang province and Tianjin municipality take the lead in enforcing China's first local smoking-control laws respectively. This milestone progress in China's smoking control legislation is proof of the retarded law-making work at the national level, which is caused by the penetration and negative influence of the tobacco industry, according to China CDC.

The decision makers in China have no excuse to ignore the fact there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry's interests and public health interests.

Many tobacco control measures have been shown to be effective in curbing both the consumption and production of tobacco. Reforming the current tobacco industry and strengthening tobacco control are actually concrete steps to transform national industrial structures and realize scientific development in the long run.

Any attempts by the tobacco industry to boost its financial and social significance should be regarded as interference, which is well targeted today.