At the National People’s Congress earlier this week, a top China tobacco official came out against graphic health warnings on packs of cigs, explaining that they would be incompatible with “Chinese cultural traditions.”
According to Reuters, Duan Tieli, deputy director of China’s State Tobacco Monopoly Association, told reporters that therefore the government-run monopoly has no intention of applying any kind of graphic warning labels to their cigarette packaging.
These kinds of warnings have been printed on cigarette cartons in countries around the world, like Australia, Thailand and Uruguay. Meanwhile, China has stuck to selling mostly attractive-looking boxes with the brief warning that “Smoking is harmful to your health. Quitting smoking early is good for your health.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported last year that smoking directly contributes to a staggering one million deaths annually in China, while secondhand inhalation takes another 100,000 lives. The WHO has continued to apply pressure to China by issuing a number of troubling reports. Most notably one that found Beijing’s famously noxious air pollution doesn’t even begin to compare to the toxicity of the air in a restaurant with just three smokers.
Duan’s cultural defense against the practice of using medical images of diseased lungs to discourage smoking directly opposes the WHO’s efforts to combat cigarette use in China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco. In fact, China signed the WHO Framework Convention Tobacco Control, promising to make an effort in reducing the supply and consumption of tobacco in 2002. However, cigarette production doubled from 1.75 trillion per year, at the time of the signing, to 2.58 trillion by 2012.
However, efforts are being implemented across the country to reduce smoking and its effects. The nation’s capital, recently outlawed smoking in all indoor public places. Beijing’s young students are also training to express their disapproval of the habit with government-suggested hand gestures. Legislation leading up to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai aimed to ban smoking in 13 types of public areas, including schools, hospitals, and larger businesses. Unfortunately, the ban has suffered poor implementation in the country’s most populous city, where one in five people is a smoker and addiction rates among teenage girls are rising.
Hong Kong’s consideration of the scary cigarette packaging complicates the State Tobacco Monopoly Association’s refusal to use the graphic health warnings, particularly considering that the entity holds a sweeping majority in the domestic market and provided as much as 816 billion yuan ($127 billion) in government revenue in 2013.
Last May, China’s cigarette tax rate rose by 6%, a gesture that again falls short of expectations, with cigarettes still very affordable in China.
China has a reported 300 million smokers who expose a further 740 million people, including 180 million children, to the effects of secondhand smoke. A recent study reported that two-thirds of China’s young men pick up the habit, many before the age of 20, and that without quitting, tobacco will eventually lead to the death of a third of the nation’s men.
By Matthew Patel