In dozens of rural villages in China’s western provinces, one of the first things primary school kids learn is what helps make their education possible: tobacco. The schools are sponsored by local units of China’s state-owned cigarette monopoly, China National Tobacco. “On the gates of these schools you’ll see slogans that say ‘Genius comes from hard work—tobacco helps you become talented,’” says Xu Guihua, secretary general of the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control, a privately funded lobbying group. “They are pinning their hopes on young people taking up smoking.”
Anti-tobacco groups say efforts in China to reduce sales, including a ban on smoking in public places introduced in May, have been hampered by light penalties, a lack of education about the dangers of smoking, and the fact that the regulator, the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, also runs the world’s biggest cigarette maker.
While Chinese law bans tobacco advertising on radio, television, and in newspapers, they “do not have clear restrictions on sales and sponsorship activities,” according to a report published in January by Yang Gonghuan, a former deputy director of China’s Center for Disease Control & Prevention, and Tsinghua University professor Hu Angang. Regional units of the monopoly funded construction of more than 100 primary schools throughout China, such as the Sichuan Tobacco Hope Primary School, the official Xinhua News Agency reported in May. Some schools are named after local tobacco companies such as Hongta or top-selling cigarette brands like Zhongnanhai, named after the compound next to the Forbidden City where China’s top leaders live and work. The state tobacco company in September 2010 announced it was sponsoring an additional 42 primary school libraries in Xinjiang and 40 in Tibet, and in November made a ¥10 million donation to a women’s development fund for a “Healthy Mothers’ Express” campaign.
China National Tobacco lists charitable activities on its website. In a survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted in 2009 by the Association on Tobacco Control, 7 percent had a good impression of the tobacco industry due to its charity work, while 18 percent said they would pick a cigarette brand because of its good works. State Tobacco’s press office didn’t respond to interview requests or faxed questions about sponsorship.
China has more than 320 million smokers, a third of the world’s total, and 53 percent of men there smoke. About 1 million Chinese die from tobacco-related illnesses every year. The tobacco industry grew at an average annual rate of 19 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to State Tobacco. Last year, earnings rose 17 percent, to ¥605 billion ($95 billion), including ¥499 billion paid in taxes.
China created the tobacco monopoly in the 1980s, when the industry supplied more than 10 percent of government revenue. Today, tobacco contributes 6.7 percent, according to Yang and Hu’s report. “Especially in tobacco-growing provinces like Yunnan and Guizhou, the tobacco industry is a very important part of local government income,” says Wang Shiyong, the World Bank’s senior health specialist in Beijing. “There is a lot of internal government lobbying to make sure the health consequences of smoking are not addressed.”
A government survey in 2010 found that two in five male doctors light up every day in China. Pfizer, whose Champix is the main prescription anti-smoking drug sold in China, funded a three-year program in 2008 to set up 60 smoke-free hospitals in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Smoking among the hospitals’ leadership fell to 8.4 percent, from 19.1 percent, while overall rates for doctors fell to 6.8 percent from 10.7 percent, says Pfizer spokeswoman Neena Moorjani.
Still, the education drives have a long way to go. Only one in four adults in China believe exposure to tobacco smoke causes heart diseases and lung cancer, and the percentage among smokers is even lower—22 percent—according to the 2010 Global Adult Tobacco Survey for China.
“We’ve been trying to get the Ministry of Education to stop the tobacco companies from sponsoring these schools,” says Xu, a former deputy director at the Chinese Center for Disease Control & Prevention. “But the ministry wants us to show them proof that this is causing harm.”