China tobacco monopoly pushes back on smoking curbs

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[December 01, 2014] BEIJING (Reuters) - The chief of China's powerful tobacco monopoly on Monday pushed back against government efforts to curb smoking, a habit the World Health Organization says accounts for as many as a million deaths a year.

In an interview with the Study Times, controlled by the ruling Communist Party, Ling Chengxing, director of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, said controls on tobacco should not take an "absolutist" or "expansionist" direction.

"We must note that smoking has hundreds of years of history and objectively a market demand for cigarettes still exists," Ling said. "Tobacco control is long term, complex and arduous work, and one-sided, absolutist and expansionist tendencies should be carefully avoided," Ling said.

With more than 300 million smokers, China is the world's largest producer and consumer of tobacco. The government has pledged to curb smoking but its efforts have had little success.

China faces a smoking-related health crisis but cigarettes are part of the social fabric, and more than half of Chinese smokers buy them at less than 5 yuan, or about 80 U.S. cents, a pack.

China is considering a draft regulation to ban indoor smoking, limit outdoor smoking and end tobacco advertising, the official Xinhua news agency reported last week.

However, intense lobbying by the tobacco monopoly has resulted in the weakening of legislation meant to introduce a complete advertising ban.

The government's heavy dependence on tobacco taxes has impeded anti-smoking efforts. Last year, the industry contributed more than 816 billion yuan ($132.64 billion) in taxes, or an estimated 7-10 percent of government revenues.

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Ling said the monopoly was supportive of government efforts to limit indoor smoking, and expressed support for new rules restricting smoking by Party cadres in workplaces and elsewhere.

Smoking in public places is already restricted in several cities, but anti-smoking advocates say the rules are not consistently enforced.

(Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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