The Tobacco Economy – Holding Back President Xi’s Vision of a Modern China

by Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer, WHO Representative in China

On Wednesday, March 1st, the city of Shanghai becomes the latest municipality in China, following Beijing and Shenzhen, to launch a 100% smoke-free policy in public places and work spaces. Some 60 million people – a number larger than many countries – living in in these cities can now enjoy smoke-free public places.

And while we congratulate Shanghai on joining Beijing and Shenzhen as global leaders in controlling tobacco, we must also ask – how is it that, in the whole of China, only these three cities have adopted 100%, comprehensive smoke-free policies? What is standing in the way of the other 1.3 billion citizens having the right to smoke-free indoor air in their workplaces, their factories, in restaurants, and shopping areas?

In the span of only four years, President Xi Jinping announced his vision for China’s future: first, he announced the Chinese Dream; he later called for China’s economy to reinvent itself, led by industrial innovation; and then, last summer, he announced his Healthy China 2030 initiative, a bold declaration that public health would be the precondition for all future economic and social development.

As evidenced in this remarkable series of policy announcements, the President’s vision for China is one in which economic growth enhances, rather than sacrifices, individual well-being.

Unfortunately, there remains a glaring obstacle to realizing the Chinese Dream and Healthy China 2030 vision – an obstacle which has resisted the considerable efforts of China’s public health authorities, advocates, and citizens.

The tobacco economy. Tobacco represents an economy of the past; China’s state-owned tobacco companies do not fit the vision of an economy driven by innovative, value-added manufacturing and a strong service sector. Its very reliance on Chinese smokers undermines efforts towards Healthy China 2030. Under the vision set out by President Xi, there is no room in China’s future for the tobacco economy.

We celebrate the smoke-free laws in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing. But these are among the wealthiest cities in China, which raises the question of inequality. Smoke-free indoor air should not be a luxury for the wealthy, rather an entitlement for all the citizens in China who are hard-working and building the Chinese dream.

Why is this not happening?

Largely because the tobacco industry in China, which has a vested interest in maintaining an economy based on the production and use of tobacco, dominates the official government body meant to curb tobacco use.

The small but successful tobacco tax undertaken in 2015, which reduced smoking and added government revenues, should be sharply increased as way to transition China’s rural economy to alternative crops while maintaining tax contributions to the state coffers. Instead, the tobacco economy has resisted further tobacco taxes and stronger advertising restrictions.

Most concerning is that the tobacco economy has all but stopped progress on a national smoke-free law. Some justify their inaction on national legislation by questioning whether rural governments are capable of implementing a comprehensive smoke-free law. To those doubters I would point to the hundreds of millions of people China pulled out of poverty in less than 30 years – a much tougher implementation challenge, achieved through strong government leadership and coordinated action at all levels.

President Xi’s vision for China’s future is clear. National leaders should pass comprehensive, national, smoke-free legislation, ensuring that all Chinese citizens, not just those in the wealthiest cities, have smoke-free indoor public environments.

Until that happens, municipal leaders like those in Shanghai today are taking bold leadership decisions into their own hands to ensure the health of their citizens. These municipal leaders are breathing new life into the Chinese dream, making President Xi’s Healthy China 2030 vision a reality, and relegating the tobacco economy to a place it deserves – in the past.

About the World Health Organization

WHO is the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system. It is responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.

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