Could 1.7 trillion cigarettes be wrong? China says yes
BEIJING â€” In a nation where bureaucrats build mammoth glass-and-steel city halls, the offices of China's National Tobacco Control Office â€” the bureau charged with educating the country's 1.3 billion people about the health hazards of smoking â€” are s
"There's not much money available," Jiang Yuan, the bureau's 42-year-old deputy director, said as she cleared space for a visitor in a room she shares with several colleagues.
The lack of resources is nothing new for Jiang. When she started working in the office in 2002, she was one of two employees.
"Very few Chinese thought smoking was a problem back then," she said. "It was a very low priority."
That is starting to change. In October, Beijing began to implement regulations stipulated by the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Initiated by the World Health Organization in 1998, 192 countries signed the agreement in 2003.
Under the agreement, China will require health warnings on all tobacco products by 2008 and will ban tobacco advertising by 2010.
China recently has announced plans to curb tobacco use including a "smoke-free Olympics" campaign aimed at reducing smoking before the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, tougher enforcement of anti-smoking laws and improved health education in public schools.
The government also is setting up an interagency working group to control tobacco use, said Xu Guihua, assistant director of the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control, China's largest nongovernmental organization working to limit smoking.
The Health Ministry has also increased the number of full-time staff at the National Tobacco Control Office to seven, a change that Jiang called "a major improvement since 2002."
For both Chinese and the world's tobacco industry, China's nascent efforts to curb the country's nicotine habit could have far-reaching effects.
China is the world's largest consumer and producer of tobacco products. An estimated 350 million Chinese smoke 1.7 trillion cigarettes a year, a third of the world's total.
Two-thirds of all Chinese men smoke, and the number of female smokers is rising quickly, Xu said.
Because cigarettes were scarce under China's planned economy in the 1960s and 1970s, the health costs of smoking are only starting to be seen.
According to Jiang, about 1.2 million Chinese die of tobacco-related diseases annually, a figure that she said could nearly double by 2030.
"Controlling smoking is the most important step the government can take to prevent disease," Jiang said, adding that the budget for education about smoking is a fraction of the money Beijing spent on campaigns in 2003 to stop the spread of SARS, which killed 774 people worldwide.
But tobacco is also big business, and experts note that many Chinese officials oppose steps that might damage the industry.
China's state-owned cigarette factories, which hold a monopoly on domestic production, earned $46 billion in 2004, according to the Guangzhou provincial Tobacco Bureau.
The official China Daily news- paper reported in April that taxes collected from "tobacco planters, producers and sellers" account for "around 10 percent of state tax income."
"Tobacco products are the biggest industry in many parts of China," Xu said. "We need to find ways to help local governments develop alternative economies."
Western tobacco companies are also eager to make further inroads within China's market. Philip Morris announced recently that it would partner with China National Tobacco Corporation to produce Marlboro cigarettes.
British American Tobacco, which sold cigarettes in China before the Communist Party nationalized the industry in 1950, has marketed at many cultural activities, Jiang said.
For Jiang, the most important question is whether the government's increased efforts to curb Chinese smoking will outpace the impact of new corporate advertising.
"Compared to 10 years ago," she said, "we've made great progress."
"But," she said, "there's still a long way to go."