China needs to curb tobacco rate

ABU DHABI – China, the planet’s largest tobacco consumer and producer, is the only nation where tobacco consumption does not decrease when the government imposes taxes on these products, hence creating a serious public health issue.

Interestingly, Chinese’s incomes rise faster than taxes on tobacco products do – unlike in other nations.

In high-income countries, if the state raises taxes on tobacco products by 10%, there is usually a 4% decrease in consumption, stressed several health experts at the 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, which started on March 17 in Abu Dhabi.

Health professionals and government officials have advocated for tobacco control during the five-day event.

More worrisome for the 300 million Chinese smokers, wages in China are expected to rise further, thereby giving more purchasing power to tobacco addicts. McKinsey & Company estimates that over 75% of urban Chinese will earn HK$75,000 to HK$287,000 a year by 2022, which is significantly high.

In addition, cigarettes packs are much more affordable in China than in other countries. Some Chinese brands cost as little as HK$3.7, compared with HK$17 in South Korea, HK$41 in Japan and HK$75 in Singapore in 2014.

In bed with the state

Although China ratified the international treaty on tobacco control, imposing high taxes on cigarettes does not make sense for the state because it owns tobacco companies.

The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration and the China National Tobacco Corporation – the largest cigarette producer on the planet– monopolize cigarette production in China.

From the Chinese state’s standpoint, decreasing the number of tobacco smokers would hinder economic growth: state-owned businesses employ hundreds of thousands of Chinese and generate revenue for the state.

Not surprisingly, Euromonitor International forecasted in 2014 that the number of cigarettes sold in China would rise at about 14% per year.

Chinese smoke 1 in every 3 cigarettes on the planet

Low taxes on tobacco products have dramatic public health consequences because health pundits consider that taxing tobacco products is one of the most effective measures to rein consumption.

Higher retail prices for cigarettes usually incentivize smokers to quit and discourage prospective addicts.

Tobacco consumption rates and related diseases in China are consequently skyrocketing.

The country has the world’s highest number of deaths attributed to smoking. More than one million Chinese die every year from tobacco-related diseases. It is one sixth of the annual global toll.

“It is important that China takes appropriate action to reduce tobacco consumption,” emphasized Margaret Chan, Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), during a press conference on March 18 in Abu Dhabi.

It is crucial as the number of smokers has ebbed across the globe.

On the bright side, the Beijing authorities passed a law in 2014 to ban smoking in public places in the capital. It will take effect in June 2015.

Business magnate Michael Bloomberg acknowledged “the [Chinese] government’s courage” to pass this ban during the conference on March 18. His philanthropy is the largest founder of tobacco control.

China is also considering a draft regulation to prohibit indoor smoking, limit it in outdoor public places and curtail the advertising of tobacco products in the whole country.

The Chinese government should also implement other policies, like graphic warnings of health risks on cigarette packs, in order to enhance Chinese’ knowledge of tobacco-related diseases.

A 2009 WHO study found that only 38% of smokers in China were aware of the fact smoking leads to coronary heart disease. Just 27% knew that it engenders stroke.

Importantly, the Chinese government has to enforce these policies outside large cities in order to curb smoking habits.


This piece was published in the South China Morning Pot on March 25, 2015. Click here.

The PDF version can be downloaded here

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