China’s Chances of Kicking a Growing Smoking Habit

BY Michael D. Mosettig  October 31, 2012 at 2:47 PM EDT

When China’s top politicians gather early next month to pick the country’s new leaders, one issue likely to be missing from the agenda is the single largest killer of Chinese people — their smoking habit.

As with any issue in China, the numbers on tobacco, cigarettes and smoking are daunting: More than a trillion cigarettes produced by the state tobacco monopoly; more than 300 million smokers, 740 million second-hand smokers, and, by 2020, some two million annual deaths related to smoking.

These are numbers the NewsHour has been chronicling since Ray Suarez reported from China two years ago:

Two days after Americans pick their president, China’s 18th Communist Party Congress opens to ratify the choice of a new party leader and premier to replace the current leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. And there is one feature that sets this group of politicians apart from the early leaders of China — none of the current members of the most powerful body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, are smokers and only five in the current 25-member Politburo.

Whether the change of personalities at the top will affect the lives of masses of Chinese smokers was the topic of a recent conference at the Brookings Institution that drew a cluster of China and public health policy wonks. For the conference, Brookings published a new book, The Political Mapping of China’s Tobacco Industry and Anti-Smoking Campaign by political scientist and senior fellow Cheng Li.

Li and other participants painted a mixed picture of China’s anti-smoking measures and whether the government is ready to take on the tobacco state monopoly, which last year generated nearly $120 billion in revenue and turned $95 billion over to the government. Marketing of cigarettes is slick and effective, said Yang Gonghuan, former deputy director of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and who was featured in Ray’s report. Cheaper brands sell for less than a dollar, and advertising suggests low-tar cigarettes are less harmful.

Guonghuan expressed hope the new leadership would make smoking not only a public health issue but one of economics and international politics, as well. For instance, Chinese have a 10-year shorter life span than citizens of the other G20 nations, and 260 million Chinese suffer expensive chronic illnesses caused by smoking. She and other anti-smoking advocates are pressing for the government to implement the international pact it signed several years ago to curb smoking. While smoking has been officially banned in public places, it remains omnipresent, she said.

On the plus side, according to Li and Guonghuan, is the fact that the wife of Xi Jinping, the anticipated new party leader, is among the celebrity figures (she is a popular singer) serving as anti-smoking ambassadors. The country has the capacity to react to public health crises, even if belatedly, as it showed in the SARS epidemic in 2003. The government has taken up other public health issues, such as the annual appearance of the premier with HIV/AIDS victims.

On the down side, smokers in China are overwhelmingly male, and the tobacco industry could determine there is a major new market to be exploited among younger women. The Public Health Ministry remains weak, and some top party leaders overseeing public health bureaucracies come out of the tobacco industry. And the Chinese monopoly, unlike its counterpart in India, shows no sign of diversifying into other businesses.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to any immediate results from the Party Congress: The leaders will have some overwhelming issues to tackle — an economic slowdown, simmering disputes with Asian neighbors and allegations of corruption at the highest levels — in a meeting already postponed beyond the normal starting date.

A more realistic prediction, conference participants said, was that the government might take some new steps in the months after the party congress.

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America. Top photo by Ed Jones/AFP/GettyImages.