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New smoking ban in China faces conflict of interest


Beijing, the Chinese capital, introduced sweeping new rules against smoking indoors in an effort to further cut down on cigarette consumption.



Many harbor doubts here about how strictly the new ban will be enforced in local settings. 



Yet there is another, stronger reason to expect only slow progress on anti-smoking in China: the government agency charged with dissuading people from smoking cigarettes also runs the company that has a monopoly on making and selling cigarettes. 



"This is a conflict of interest… that it is impossible to reconcile," says Jin Jiyong, who teaches health policy at Shanghai International Studies University.



"It is a challenge" for the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA) to both run the Chinese cigarette industry and regulate it at the same time, acknowledges Li Baojiang, deputy head of the agency’s think tank.



Critics say the STMA puts profits ahead of health at the behest of the government. Last year the tobacco industry in China earned US$149 billion – in tax revenue. That adds up to a whopping 6.5 percent of the national budget, according to state figures.



"Today the economy is the prevalent priority in government," says Yang Gonghuan, a former deputy chief of the Chinese Center for Disease Control. "They [officials] don’t risk the economy."



The tobacco industry’s economic importance gives it tremendous clout, and it also enjoys top level political connections.



Still, Beijing's new municipal rules, which set high fines for smoking in enclosed public spaces such as bars, and offices and restaurants, are the toughest ordinances anywhere in China.



Smoking in China is still common, especially in the countryside. More than 300 million people smoke, including 53 percent of adult men according to the World Health Organization. The state-owned China National Tobacco Corporation, working under the STMA, manufactured more than 2.5 trillion cigarettes last year – 43 percent of total world production – and over 20 million people are employed, directly or indirectly, in the business.吸烟在中国至今仍很普遍,尤其是在农村。据世界卫生组织称,中国吸烟人数超过3亿,其中53%是成年男性。由烟草局领导的中国烟草总公司去年生产香烟逾2.5万亿支,占世界总产量的43%。中国烟业的直接或间接从业人员超过2000万。


The Chinese government signed up to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control ten years ago. But it has not met all its obligations.



A nationwide ban on indoor smoking in public places, which should have become law in 2011, is still held up in the State Council, China’s cabinet office.



The government has shared responsibility for tobacco control among several ministries, including Health, Finance, and Industry. When the CDC evaluated government action in 2011, "We gave them a failing grade" of just 37 out of 100, says Dr. Yang. 



The authorities fell down on key tasks such as banning indoor smoking, raising cigarette prices, putting health warnings on packages, and helping smokers quit. The STMA’s role in tobacco control, as a major player in the Ministry of Industry, "explains why our progress is so slow," says Yang.



The STMA, which runs the China National Tobacco Corporation, has been tasked with designing graphic health warnings and ensuring they appear on cigarette packages. Seven years after it was given the job, no such warnings have yet appeared.



"Tobacco control is a process," says Mr. Li in explanation, adding that the WHO convention only "encourages" governments to use graphic health warnings, rather than obliging them to do so.



That, argues Professor Jin, is a weak excuse. "Graphic warnings are the most effective way to bring down smoking rates in China," he says, "and the government should take peoples’ health into consideration."



To be sure, the STMA is not trying to expand its customer base by encouraging young people to take up smoking, Li insists. Advertising for cigarettes was banned last month.



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