In China, 341 million smoke, vaping market booms

June 03, 2021 10:10
Photo: xinhua

China has 341 million smokers, and sales and profits of its giant tobacco monopoly are growing.

This year the e-tobacco market in China will exceed 10 billion yuan.

These depressing figures were released last week, despite the valiant efforts of hundreds of Chinese and international doctors, health institutions and public health specialists who have lobbied the government to follow the example of foreign governments that have succeeded in slashing tobacco consumption.

According to a study published in the Lancet, the number of smokers worldwide has increased to 1.1 billion in 2019. One third live in China.

A report issued in Beijing last Wednesday by China’s National Health Commission (NHC) and World Health Organization said 26.6 per cent of Chinese aged 15 or above smoke, including 50.5 per cent of the men. It said that the e-smoking market in China this year would exceed 10 billion yuan, compared to over 8 billion in 2020 and 550 million in 2013.

The report was released ahead of the World No Tobacco Day on May 31.

Currently, more than one million die in China each year of tobacco-related diseases, the report said. “If effective measures are not taken, this will increase to two million in 2030 and three million in 2050” it said.

These increases are a result of government policy. The China Commercial Industry Research Centre has given a detailed analysis of the industry.

“The tobacco industry accounts for one ninth of national taxes and profits,” it said. “Without this, investment in infrastructure would be insufficient and local industries would be affected. This would seriously affect national development and improving living standards. Overall, the benefits of the tobacco industry outweigh the disadvantages, in terms of damaging people’s health.”

Dr Judith Mackay, the veteran tobacco control advocate in Asia, said health economists, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the UNDP, disagreed totally with this incredulous statement.

“The costs of smoking to governments, employers, business, the individual smoker and the environment far outweigh any short-term perceived advantage. The environmental costs include the costs of fires, rubbish of billions of cigarettes, lighters, matches, packets and cutting down trees to cure tobacco,” she said.

Tobacco is one of a small number of industries that remain a state monopoly, and one of the dwindling number of state monopolies in the world. China National Tobacco Corporation is the world’s largest cigarette producer, with a global market share that exceeds that of any private company. China grows more than 40 per cent of the world’s tobacco but exports only a small portion of it.

Within the government, there is intense debate over the costs and benefits of the industry.

Doctors and public health professionals argue that the cost of lost production, workers who are sick and die and treating those sick with tobacco-related diseases far outweigh the taxes the industry pay. At least one million die a year and many more are unable to work due to tobacco-related diseases.

But the industry is very powerful. It points to the high level of taxes and also the millions who grow tobacco, work in cigarette factories and are employed in distribution, marketing and sales.

Because of the power of the industry, China has not implemented the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to which it is a party. Packets carry a health warning, but a mild one and with no pictures. The topic is almost absent from the media, so that many people are unaware of the risks they are taking.

In spite of being in the pipeline for many years, there is still no national smoke-free law. The tax rate on cigarettes is far from the 70 per cent of the retail price, as recommended by the World Health Organization.

Increasing prices through tobacco taxation is the best way to prevent youth uptake, because it makes cigarettes unaffordable to teenagers, the health specialists say. If they can get to 23-25 years, the frontal lobes in the brain are developed, and they do not start.

China offers a wide range of prices, so that a person of modest income can easily buy one or more packets a day.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.