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.
The country's State Tobacco Monopoly Administration controls the
world's single largest manufacturer of tobacco products, China
National Tobacco Corporation, but also wields power over
policymaking on tobacco control and enforcement.
Anti-smoking campaigners say this dynamic has long undermined their
efforts to curb the habit.
WHO's director-general, Dr Margaret Chan, said she had advised
China's tobacco monopoly to separate the government agency functions
from the state tobacco firm, and expected the Chinese government
would take her advice.
"I believe the Chinese government will implement (this change) step
by step, according to their procedure," Chan, speaking in Cantonese,
told a news conference concluding her official visit to China.
Chan, a bird flu expert and former Hong Kong health director, said
the government had shown "commitment and understanding" of the
conflict of interest stemming from the dual promotion and control
roles of the state tobacco monopoly.
The government's heavy dependence on tobacco taxes also impedes
anti-smoking efforts. Last year the tobacco industry contributed
more than 816 billion yuan ($131.70 billion) to government coffers,
an annual rise of nearly 14 percent.
Chan said about a third of the world's smokers live in China. The
government has run half-hearted campaigns for years to curb the
habit. Many Chinese cities ban smoking in public places, but
no-smoking signs are often ignored.
Although Beijing banned smoking by government officials in public
last year, the habit is viewed as an important element in
socializing and Chinese cigarettes are among the cheapest in the
world, at less than a dollar a pack.
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Smoking and other high-risk habits, such as eating too much junk
food high in salt, sugar and trans fats, can lead to significant
increases in non-communicable diseases, including cancer and
diabetes, and risk wiping out the economic gains China has built up
in the past three decades, Chan said.
"If we don't see very strong actions to tackle tobacco and other
preventable health risks, the burden of these diseases will be
simply devastating," she said.
Chan said she met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, together with World
Bank President Jim Yong Kim, on Tuesday to discuss healthcare
reforms, but tobacco control was not mentioned.
Li's younger brother, Li Keming, has served as deputy head of the
State Tobacco Monopoly Administration since 2003. ($1=6.1957 Chinese
(Reporting by Li Hui; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)
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