Tobacco industry blocks anti-smoking campaign

Updated: 2011-01-07 09:12
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BEIJING - China's tobacco industry is to be blamed for the government's failure to honor its commitment to a World Health Organization (WHO) treaty that calls for strong tobacco control measures -- including a complete ban of smoking in all indoor public places -- a report said Thursday.

Progress on tobacco control is limited and far from meeting the requirements of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), said the report, "Tobacco Control and China's Future," compiled by a group of prominent Chinese and foreign experts.

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The fundamental reason, it says, is the interference of the tobacco industry, whose representatives are part of a government panel that drafts and oversees the implementation of China's tobacco control measures.

China is the world's largest cigarette producer and consumer. There are about 300 million smokers in the country and nearly 60 percent of Chinese men smoke. The report says about 1.2 million Chinese die from tobacco-related illnesses each year and the figure is projected to reach 3.5 million by 2030 if current smoking trends continue.

China ratified the WHO treaty in 2003, pledging strong measures to curb tobacco consumption. But it put the treaty's implementation into the hands of a multi-agency work group that includes the State Tobacco Monopoly, the regulatory body that shares the same management as China Tobacco Corporation -- the world's largest cigarette maker.

"One cannot be his own judge. That is common sense for people who know the law," said Ying Songnian, a well-known law professor at China University of Political Science and Law.

He said there is an obvious conflict of interest as tobacco companies seek profit from sales of tobacco products while anti-smoking campaigns aims to reduce tobacco consumption.

China sold about 2,290 billion sticks of cigarettes in 2009, up 40 percent from 2002, industry reports show.

Though tobacco commercials are largely banned in national media, tobacco companies across the country have increased donations to charities.

The treaty, however, calls for a complete ban on tobacco advertisements, promotion and sponsorships, according to article 13.

Wu Yiqun, deputy head of non-governmental organization Thinktank Research Center for Health Development, said the tobacco industry objects to and blocks "almost every" tobacco control policy recommended in the FCTC.

The industry has been trying to distort the text of the WHO treaty by using weaker terms for the text's Chinese translation, Wu said.

China has met disapproval at conferences of the parties to the FCTC as it is among the few that still allows members of the tobacco industry into the country's delegation.

"An independent tobacco control agency should be set up and the government's regulatory body should be separated from the State-owned tobacco company," the report says.

Observers say the government might allow tobacco industry's involvement out of concern a drastic ban on tobacco may kill an industry that generates about 7 percent of the state's annual revenue income and millions of jobs.

But economists and health experts say the cost of medical treatment for those sickened by tobacco and the loss of productivity smoking brings outweighs the profits generated by the sale of tobacco.

The tobacco industry has become the largest industry endangering the health of the country, the report says.

Douglas Bettcher, director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tobacco Free Initiative, warned that a wave of deaths due to tobacco is likely to hit the country in coming decades if no strong tobacco control measures are put in place.

As the death and disease wave from tobacco increases in China, demands on the health care system may be overwhelming, he said.

"There is a link between tobacco use and economic and financial stability," he said. "So the government can't turn a blind eye to tobacco control."