Interference decried in tobacco policy

13:59, June 01, 2011      

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A student looks at a tobacco control poster at a high school in Chaohu, a city in East China's Anhui province, on Tuesday, which is World No Tobacco Day. Local anti-smoking advocates encouraged students to refrain from lighting up cigarettes and to work together to have a campus free of tobacco. Li Yuanbo / for China Daily

China can use its government monopoly of the tobacco industry to prevent interference in policies meant to control tobacco use in a country where more than 1 million people die each year of illnesses related to smoking, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said.

"China's tobacco industry is 100 percent owned by the State," Dr Sarah England, a Beijing-based WHO tobacco control official, said on the eve of World No Tobacco Day, which falls on Tuesday.

"And this offers tremendous opportunities for the government to bring it under control."

China produces more cigarettes than any other country and its people smoke more than people living anywhere else. About 300 million smokers live in China, and nearly 60 percent of Chinese men smoke.

China ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003, pledging to take strong measures to curb tobacco use. Despite that strong statement, the task of putting the treaty into effect has been left to a work group whose members include the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, a regulatory body that shares management with the China Tobacco Corp.

The China Tobacco Corp is the world's largest cigarette maker. Industry figures show that about 2.3 trillion cigarettes were sold in China in 2009, 40 percent more than had been in 2002.

"The tobacco industry is acting against the principles of public health, and the WHO (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) guidelines make clear the tobacco industry should have no influence on tobacco control policy," she said, adding that the State monopoly is actually an advantage to China, since it allows the government to control the industry's actions and influence in policymaking.

She said Thailand has a similar State monopoly, and the Thai government manages to keep the government's tobacco industry separate from the process it uses to formulate tobacco policies.

"China can look to examples where there is a separation of these functions and consider whether a similar arrangement of firewalling is workable," she said.

Many in the health industry have long called for representatives of the tobacco industry to be kicked out of the work group charged with putting the WHO treaty into effect.

The main reason China is not closer to its goal of doing more to control tobacco use is that representatives of the tobacco industry interfere with the drafting and enforcement of tobacco policies, said a report written in part by a deputy head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a message delivered for World No Tobacco Day this year, the WHO said the biggest barrier to enacting and enforcing national laws that are consistent with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is the tobacco industry's interference in the formulation of public health policies.

The WHO said governments, civil society and communities should stay vigilant and work together to prevent interferences in policymaking.

Tobacco use kills nearly 6 million people in the world every year. Most of them die from heart disease, strokes, cancer or emphysema, according to the WHO. Deaths related to tobacco use account for 63 percent of deaths stemming from non-communicable diseases in the world. And second-hand exposure to tobacco causes an estimated 600,000 deaths a year.

The tobacco industry now generates about 7 percent of the Chinese government's annual revenue. Although a boon to society in one way, health experts argue the money is overshadowed by the lost productivity and overwhelming medical costs linked to the deaths and illnesses caused by tobacco consumption.

The WHO official said she was encouraged to see the government's current five-year plan contains language aimed at controlling tobacco use, a historical inclusion signaling that controlling tobacco is a priority of the Chinese government.

Upon the plan's release, the Ministry of Health immediately adopted a ban on smoking indoors.

"I think we are going to see a real change in the quality of indoor air in the next year," England said. "We are very optimistic that China will implement the (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) and honor its obligations."

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