A new study says China has the largest number of tobacco users in the world. And analysts say efforts to curb the habit are being hindered by the country's state-owned tobacco enterprises.
The British-based medical journal Lancet said Friday in a report on global smoking rates that around 300 million people, about 28 percent of the population, use tobacco products in China, despite new restrictions on public smoking.
The study's lead author, Dr. Gary Giovino, says China's government-owned cigarette companies, an important source of revenue, are even encouraging the deadly habit with advertisements in elementary schools.
“The China National Tobacco Company has supported elementary schools in China, dozens and dozens of them. And they use their support to promote propaganda about tobacco use, and they are basically telling students that genius comes from hard work and tobacco helps them to be successful. That to me is mind-boggling, that a government would tell its children to use tobacco to be successful when tobacco will addict them and shorten their lives," said Giovino.
China has taken some recent steps to lessen public tobacco use, banning smoking in restaurants, bars, and other outdoor venues.
But Angela Merriam of the Beijing-based China Policy organization says the new smoking ban is not being consistently enforced.
"The ban on smoking in public spaces is completely ineffective," said Merriam. "For example, I have a student who did an informal survey of just over 60 establishments in China. Of those polled, almost 70 percent said they permit smoking. And while 80 percent had heard of the regulations, only 12 percent of people in the restaurants had heard of a fine for a violation of the regulation."
Other say that any substantial progress will be difficult as long as the same authorities responsible for controlling tobacco use are also in charge of tobacco production.
Bruce Jacobs, a China analyst at Monash University in Australia, says part of the problem is that health advocacy groups in China are being marginalized by the country's big tobacco companies.
"A lot of the tobacco growing and the manufacturing of cigarettes in China is done by big state-owned corporations, and they bring in money. [So] the health organizations don't have as much clout as these big economic organizations," said Jacobs.
The Lancet study said that tobacco use around the world is greatly influenced by the pro-tobacco lobby. The World Health Organization estimates that six million people worldwide die annually of tobacco-related illnesses. At least one million of those deaths occur in China.