Unstoppable Chinese smokers? Beijing should consider pushing e-cigarettes industry

Beijing leaders announced the introduction of a new smoke-free ordinance to be enforced in the capital in the coming weeks. Smoking in all indoor places – including restaurants and offices – and on public transport will be forbidden city-wide from June 1. Moreover, all forms of tobacco advertising will be banned in the media, in public places and outdoor areas, as for promotion and sponsorship by tobacco companies. The initiative was approved by the municipal people’s congress last year and, if successful, it would likely be extended to the rest of the country.

The long-awaited measure has been received with a certain degree of reasonable skepticism, this considering China’s failure to effectively enforce similar bans in the last decade. Indeed, after ratifying the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention to Tobacco Control in 2005, China did not fulfill its commitment to prohibit indoor smoking within 2011; on the contrary the country’s tobacco output increased by 32 percent. The ban of indoor smoking was already introduced in 2010, but the ridiculous fines for transgressors, combined with the absence of real control, did not help its implementation. Owing also to the widespread view that smoking does not cause serious harm, the measure has already been imposed in 14 cities without success.

The situation i[cml_media_alt id='1533']images (4)[/cml_media_alt]s even more alarming looking at data on cigarettes consumption in China: according to the World Health Organization, nearly one-third of the world’s smokers live within Chinese borders, accounting for more than 300 million people. This means that about one in every three cigarettes smoked in the world is smoked in the Middle Kingdom.

In Beijing they decided to launch the new anti-smoking campaign in an innovative pop fashion, asking  for a contribution to the citizens. They should state their preference for one among the three proposed gestures which will be used to demand a neighbor to put its cigarette out. A palm of the hand pointed to the smoker indicating a clear “no”, two fingers of the right hand on the palm of the left hand to say “stop”, or one hand covering the mouth. This time, smokers surprised to break the law will be fined up to ¥200 (20 times the current fine, about €30) and people will be able to report them through a specifically designed app on Wechat.

China’s Ministry of Finance, Lou Jiwei, announced on May 10 that the consumption tax on cigarettes at the wholesale level was raised from 5 to 11 percent. The government declared this move is expected to cut cigarette consumption by four to five percent and add ¥100 billion (around €15 billion) to annual tax revenues. However, in China, personal incomes in cities like Shanghai are rising much faster than prices of cigarettes and, in any case, such an small increment will probably have a limited deterring effect on chain smokers.

The widespread doubts which still surrounds the effectiveness of the measure in reducing the use of tobacco are linked to another major issue: jobs and revenues linked to this industry. The state-owned China National Tobacco Corporation is the world’s largest cigarette manufacturer, generating CN¥ 816 billion (7-10% of GDP and €120 billion) in revenue. According to a study conducted by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, as much as half of some provincial governments’ budgets is financed by tobacco industry. Even if fewer smokers mean healthier people and lower public medical costs, this would not match the government’s loss of income. “It’s like the health minister showing up at a cabinet meeting about tobacco control law and the meeting is chaired by Philip Morris,” commented Doctor Angela Pratt, who heads the WHO’s tobacco-free initiative.

An alternative strategy could be represented by e-cigarettes, being them a homegrown product with a lower impact on health and which could also be appealing for chain smokers. If pushed by proper regulation and accompanied by the example of officials turning to e-cigarettes, e-cigarettes industry could provide a sustainable alternative , for both smokers and revenues.

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