BEIJING - Anti-tobacco advocates on Thursday criticized a tobacco company's move to sponsor a sports event, calling it a "bold promotion of their product rather than charity".
The Beijing Tobacco Factory, which manufactures the Zhongnanhai brand of cigarettes, is sponsoring a national five-city parkour event in collaboration with the Beijing donation center of the Hope Project, a major charitable organization in China.
Parkour is the physical discipline of overcoming any obstacle within one's path by adapting one's movements to the environment.
Named after the factory's cigarette product, the parkour rally kicked off in Beijing on July 31 and will conclude on Aug 26 in the Diqing Tibet autonomous region in Southwest China's Yunnan province, where a Hope Project school named "Zhongnanhai" will be inaugurated.
"It is an activity in the name of charity, but actually it is a bold tobacco promotion," said Wu Yiqun, a Beijing-based anti-tobacco advocate at a symposium on Thursday.
Through the event, images of cigarette packets, the brand names, and words like "lights", are visible on the participants' clothing and hoardings, said Wu, who is also the deputy director of the Beijing-based NGO Think Tank Research Center for Health Development.
China ratified the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005, and has banned tobacco advertising on TV, radio, in local magazines and newspapers.
"The parkour event is the tobacco company's way to go around the convention guidelines," Shen Weixing, a law professor at Tsinghua University, said.
"More legislation efforts are needed to reflect the convention guidelines in domestic laws and help the public make sound judgments."
Anti-tobacco advocates have sent a letter to the Hope Project's Beijing donation center, asking the organization to stop the event.
"We are not willing to see the Hope Project, which has touched so many people, be used by the tobacco industry," Wu said.
In China, the number of teenaged smokers has seen a significant rise in recent years.
According to a survey by the Ministry of Health in 2008, 15 million teenagers in the country are smokers, and another 14 million have tried smoking.
Sarah England, technical officer at WHO China, said recent studies have proved that the more young people are exposed to tobacco advertising, the more likely they are to start smoking.
Tobacco companies worldwide are pumping in billions of dollars to attract more and more young people to their addictive and deadly products through sophisticated marketing.
Tobacco manufacturers market their products wherever youth can be easily accessed - in the movies, on the Internet, in fashion magazines and at music and sports venues.
"China has endorsed the (convention) guidelines and has honored them by refusing tobacco companies' sponsorship for the Shanghai Expo and the National Games," Sarah England said.
"Further bans are needed on billboards, the Internet, cigarette giveaways and discounts," she said.
Tobacco now kills a million Chinese people every year.
According to WHO, if the present trend continues, this century will see 3 million tobacco-related Chinese deaths annually.