Cigarettes never scared Li Wenbin. But when he saw a pack of Triple-Fives from Thailand, the two-pack-a-dayer recoiled in disgust. A picture of blackened cancerous lungs appeared ominously over the words “Smoking Kills” on the imported packs.
Such graphic warnings remain absent from Chinese cigarette packs, despite the rising number of smokers in the country. This trend runs counter to a global drop-off in cigarette consumption and reflects the extraordinary clout of the State-run tobacco industry.
Four years after China vowed in 2006 to carry out the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the country has yet to enact a law on smoking control, and the situation is not getting any better because the government is hesitant to curb smoking. Tobacco is still a big moneymaker for the government because the tobacco business is exclusively run by the government.
Direct advertising of tobacco is banned from television, so the cigarette makers have turned to “soft” advertising.
Tobacco makers are sponsoring sports events and movies that promote tobacco brands. The law should ban tobacco makers from all sorts of advertising and sponsorship, said Wu Yiqun, deputy director of ThinkTank Research Center for Health Development, a Beijing-based anti-smoking NGO.
What is more, various additives have been blended into tobacco to make it taste better. Wuyesheng, a Guangdong-based tobacco company, even added herbs to some of its products and claimed the smokes could cure some diseases.
At the Global Tobacco Control Conference of 2008, China was given the “Dirty Ashtray Award” for “preferring pretty cigarette cases to citizens’ health.”
The cigarette cases sold on the Chinese mainland look quite different than packages of the same brands sold in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Horrifying images of disease-ridden smokers, showing rotten teeth, soot-blackened hearts and cancerous lungs, are never printed on the cigarette cases sold on the mainland.
Local authorities in Taiwan and Hong Kong require that a government health warning be printed on the top of each cigarette package, accompanied by an alarming picture.
Warnings of the health risk from smoking are printed in tiny characters on cigarette packs sold on the mainland. Instead, cigarette boxes are decorated with beautiful scenery and delicate designs.
Smokers start young
The 28-year-old IT engineer smoked his first cig when he was 19, during his third year of senior high.
“You can buy cigs from every convenience store around the school,” Li said. “Nobody cares how old you are. Some stores offer five cigarettes at a time just for the convenience of the student, because they know some students cannot afford a whole pack.”
In 1984, the average age at which male smokers started smoking was 22. The average female smoker took her first puff at age 25. However, the average age for first-time smokers dropped to 18 for males and 20 for females in 2002, according to a report submitted to the National People’s Congress at its annual session earlier that year.
According to the China Tobacco Control Report 2008, about 15 million, or 11.5 percent of the nation’s 130 million teenagers aged 13 to 18 are smokers, and about 40 million teens have tried smoking. Almost 90 percent of teenage smokers say they have never been rejected when they ask to buy cigarettes, according to the report, even though tobacco outlets are prohibited from selling cigarettes to juveniles and are required to check the ages of their young buyers.
Meanwhile, children are being seduced into nicotine addiction, said Wu.
Several schools rebuilt after the Sichuan earthquake last year were nicknamed “Tobacco Schools” because their reconstruction was funded by local tobacco companies.
“Tobacco companies are trying to beautify their reputation by doing this,” Wu said.
Chinese tobacco makers are great brand protectors. Most of them register their brands as “industrial corporations,” and are frequently advertised on television, even on some channels of China’s State television network.
Revenues pour in
Before 1978, China produced 600 billion cigarettes each year, less than one fifth of total global production. That production quadrupled to 2.3 trillion in 2009, and now accounts for about one third of the world’s total.
In 2009, the tobacco industry contributed about 100 billion yuan ($14.6 billion), in tax revenues, or about 7 percent of the country’s total. In major tobacco-producing provinces, the percentage is even higher.
In Yunnan Province, China’s largest tobacco base, tobacco makes up half of the government’s fiscal revenue. In Hunan, the No.2 producer, tobacco accounts for about 30 percent of provincial tax revenue.
China’s gift-giving culture partly explains why the government has been reluctant to put graphic images of health damage on cigarette cartons. It would be unthinkable for Chinese people to hand out gift cartons of cigarettes em-blazoned with grotesque x-rays of blackened lungs.
Because of the higher profit margin, expensive cigarettes account for the majority of tobacco profits while accounting for only about 10 percent of total sales, according to Nanfang Weekly magazine.
“Sales of expensive tobacco would fall if any of those warning picture were printed on the pack,” said Wu.
The government has levied higher taxes on cigarettes since last September, a move that Wu believes did not encourage people to quit smoking because the tobacco companies paid the tax increase without raising cigarette prices.
If cigarette prices rose 10 percent, smoking would decrease about 5 to 7 percent, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
China has roughly 350 million smokers, more people than the entire US population, according to WHO data, while China produces and consumes more than one-third of the world’s cigarettes.
The prevalence of Chinese male smokers has remained high over the past 30 years, even while the number of smokers in the US, the UK and Japan keeps declining.
In 2008, about 57.4 percent of China’s male population were smokers, compared to 20 percent in the UK and Japan. Stop smoking campaigns in the US have lowered the percentage of male smokers to about 40 percent from around 80 percent in the 1960s.
Li Wenbin put a pack of 555 cigarettes in a drawer of his office desk and has not opened it after seven months.
“I like home-made cigarettes better,” he said. “At least, their look makes you feel a little more comfortable.”
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