China is making very slow progress on tobacco control despite the ban on tobacco advertising on radio, TV and in newspapers as well as the new prohibition on smoking in public places introduced in May. The agency charged with enforcing the ban on smoking in public places also regulates China National Tobacco, the world’s biggest cigarette maker, which provides nearly 7% of the government’s annual revenues.
While in the U.S. and many Western countries widespread public education preceded changes in policy, the reverse is happening in China. According to Bloomberg Business Week 10/3-10/9, 2011, in many rural villages, local units of China National Tobacco actually sponsor their schools. The article quotes Xu Guihua, secretary general of the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control, saying, “on the gates of these schools you’ll see slogans that say ‘Genius comes from hard work—tobacco helps you become talented.’”
Only one in four Chinese adults believe exposure to tobacco smoke causes heart diseases and lung cancer. China has more than 320 million smokers. 53% of Chinese men smoke and about a million Chinese die each year. Public education on the dangers of tobacco is still spinning its wheels. “We’ve been trying to get the Ministry of Education to stop the tobacco companies from sponsoring these schools,” said secretary general Xu, “but the ministry wants us to show them proof that this is causing harm.”
Seeing China’s tobacco control movement struggling with basic public ignorance about the health effects of tobacco use reminds me of how far we’ve come in the United States from a similar situation in the 1940s and 1950s. Maybe the sheer magnitude of the increasing disease burden of tobacco use in China will eventually lead to greater public education and stronger policies and enforcement.