Smoking really does kill people, but that’s a hard message to sell in China. When we first discussed China’s tobacco use on the blog in 2009, smoking in hospitals was normal (one-third of doctors were supposedly unaware of tobacco’s health risks), cigarettes were cheap, and one million people were dying each year from tobacco-related illnesses.
Today, it is hard to tell how much progress has been made (though perhaps not enough time has passed to judge.) While smoking bans have been implemented for hospitals and some public areas, they are seldom enforced. In late 2009, a 50 percent tax on tobacco went into effect, and the government instructed the tobacco industry to absorb it. A new 41.5 percent tax on tobacco was passed in February 2011, however, and researcher Euromonitor International predicts this increase will be passed on to consumers resulting in a reduction of overall tobacco consumption and even encouraging some smokers to quit. In 2010, China’s tobacco sales rose by 17 percent, and Euromonitor predicts the market will keep growing beyond 2015.
Cigarette use is pervasive in Chinese society and a major moneymaker for the government, which manufactures tobacco products through the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA). While, tobacco advertisements are illegal on television and in print publications, Bloomberg News says STMA units find other ways of advertising through sponsorship arrangements. Tobacco brand names show up in movies credits and on school walls.
The Telegraph found that at least 100 primary and secondary schools were funded by the tobacco industry. The article reported that many of these sponsorships come through China’s Project Hope, a charity that builds schools in rural areas. These schools all had the name of a cigarette brand in their title, but there are believed to be many more. Tobacco companies insist they’re just trying to be socially responsible, but banners indicate other motives.
Xu Guihua, of the lobbying group Chinese Association on Tobacco Control said, “On the gates of these schools, you’ll see slogans that say ‘Genius comes from hard work – Tobacco helps you become talented.’”
Another slogan at a Sichuan Tobacco Project Hope Primary School reads, “Work hard for society! Tobacco can help you become an achiever!”
New Campaigns Needed
Why are so few people protesting these sponsorships? It’s most likely a lack of information about the affects of first and second-hand smoking. On some level everyone in China must know that smoking is bad for their health, but without anti-smoking campaigns many people do not understand the full weight of the issue. The Tobacco Free Center, a US based NGO that works to reduce tobacco use worldwide, says that small things like health warnings on cigarette packs keep smokers unaware.
[They] do not effectively warn smokers about the dangers of smoking. They are text only on a background that is the same color as the rest of the pack, use small type, and communicate just two, nearly identical, rotating messages, which do not spell out specific health consequences of smoking: “Smoking is harmful to your health; quit smoking reduces health risk” and “Smoking is harmful to your health; quit smoking early is good for your health.”
There are advocacy groups and nonprofits dedicated to reducing tobacco consumption in China, but the government has been slow to support them. While STMA companies have a monopoly on cigarette production, the government also pays dearly as tobacco-related illnesses increase yearly (along with deaths, which are currently at one million a year and estimated to double by 2020).
Euromonitor asserts that the government will soon introduce legislation and education to prevent youth from taking up the habit and encourage current smokers to stop. With 350 million daily smokers, government-led anti-smoking campaigns are critical to reducing that number and shifting the society’s reliance on tobacco. The size of the industry means this will be no easy task, especially since many impoverished rural people rely on tobacco for employment.