China became the 77th signatory to the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in Nov 2003, which pledged a comprehensive smoking ban in public places by Jan 9, 2011.
In early May, the Ministry of Health told the press that China would begin the comprehensive ban in public places as promised. However, almost two weeks later, the Ministry of Health has denied the information and said the press misunderstood.
"The Ministry of Health can only give orders to hospitals, so only the medical institutions will ban smoking next year," a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said on May 25.
The late "clarification," just before World No Smoking Day on May 31, showcases the awkward plight of banning smoking in China. It's simply too hard for China to deliver. Seven years after signing the convention, China still has 350 million smokers (one third of the world's smokers), 500 billion in tobacco taxes, and 20 million tobacco growers.
The complicated economic interests within the tobacco industry draw many ministries and governmental departments into a complicated game. The National People's Congress, China's legislative branch, has no plan to pass a law on a comprehensive smoking ban.
Yang Gonghuan, director of National Tobacco Control Office, apologized for the tobacco-control situation in China.
"It's like a bunch of foxes in the chicken coop discussing how to protect the chickens," Yang said to the press.
The layers of economic interest behind the tobacco industry are the main reason why the government hesitates to take action. Some provinces live on tobacco industry. For example, the tobacco industry contributes 45 percent of Yunnan Province's revenue. Even during the financial crisis, the taxes of China's tobacco industry rose by 12 percent from 2008 to 2009, and that tax rate is the fastest growing rate in the world.
No doubt, China would normally take pride in being "number one," but perhaps not for holding the top spot for number of smokers, and it continues to increase.
Not surprisingly, China claims the most victims of tobacco. Second-hand smoke harms 540 million – 180 million are youths. By 2025, deaths caused by smoking-related diseases will reach 2 million annually. According to the WHO, if a country's yearly tobacco tax is in the billions, it must spend 2.8 times the amount in public health for smoke-related illness.
The Chinese government has long been focusing on increasing the GDP. Will it ignore the grim smoking statistics and the threat to public health for fear of damaging GDP numbers? At the moment, it certainly looks that way.
(This post was first published in Chinese in South Daily on May 26, 2010 and translated by Chen Chen.)