China: steady progress but huge challenges for tobacco control

19 Aug 2015

Since the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) came into effect on 9 January 2006, the Chinese Government has worked earnestly to implement the Convention by adopting a series of measures to control the tobacco epidemic. Civil society has also played an important role.

Groups including the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control (CATC), the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association and the Health Research Centre have taken the initiative to reach out to the media and organizations representing legal, economic and other interests to help promote the government’s efforts and to expose tobacco companies’ attempts to block tobacco control measures.

Recent milestones include:

Tobacco control plan
In 2012 a group established by the State Council to study and formulate the performance of tobacco control issued the China Tobacco Control Plan (2012-2015).

National leadership’s attention
At the end of December 2013, the general office of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee and the general office of the State Council issued a notice for “leading cadres to take the lead in a ban on smoking in public places”. This was considered to be the leadership’s endorsement of tobacco control measures.

Ban on smoking in public places
Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Yinchuan and 15 other cities, representing 1/10 of the country’s population, have adopted smoke-free legislation.

Regulations for the capital Beijing were implemented on 1 June 2015. They ban smoking on public transport, in all indoor public places, including offices, shopping malls and airports, as well as at outdoor stadiums, school grounds and public parks. Already, public smoking has been noticeably reduced.

Total ban on tobacco advertising
An amendment to the advertising law that comes into effect on 1 September 2015 bans tobacco advertising in the mass media, on public transportation and in all public places. It also bans any form of tobacco advertising aimed at minors.

While experts have praised this law they also warn that tobacco companies will attempt to bypass its provisions, so implementation must be comprehensive.

Raising tobacco taxes and prices
On 10 May 2015 taxes on tobacco were increased, which also raised the wholesale price. Taxes now account for 56 percent of the retail price of tobacco. From 10 to 31 May commercial wholesale sales fell 15.9 percent year-on-year, meaning that the tax increase combined with other tobacco control measures has succeeded in reducing consumption.

Civil society’s role

Despite these positive results, the road ahead will be very difficult for various reasons, including those below. Civil society will have to continue to promote effective tobacco control measures and expose the industry’s attempts to block them.

Sheer numbers – 45 percent of China’s smokers have never tried to quit, while 7.4 million non-smokers in the country suffer from the harms of secondhand smoke;
Warnings – China still has text-only warnings about tobacco’s harms on packages, whereas it’s been proven that pictorial warnings are more effective. Also, the warnings cover only 30 percent of pack surfaces versus 80-90 percent for leading countries;
Tax – While tobacco taxes have risen, they remain far below WHO’s recommended level of at least 70 percent of the retail price;
Cessation – The government has yet to introduce policies at the national level to help smokers quit.

*Xu Guihua is Executive Vice President and Secretary General of the Chinese Association on tobacco control




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