China’s Tobacco Epidemic

Many scholars and practitioners are worried about the deteriorating environmental problems that China currently faces. But equally problematic and perhaps more intractable to address is the burgeoning tobacco epidemic that is sweeping the PRC and an epidemic that is being caused by the government itself. In a cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek, the menacing tobacco problem is unpacked. And the picture is unbelievably stark and worrisome. Here’s a snapshot

  • The China National Tobacco Corp., which serves China’s 300 million smokers, is by far the largest cigarette maker in the world. In 2013 it manufactured about 2.5 trillion cigarettes. Its next largest competitor, Philip Morris International (PM), produced 880 billion. 
  • China National controls 98 percent of the market that employs more than 500,000 Chinese and they form among roughly 20 million people who derive income from tobacco products. In 2012, the SOE generated about $170 billion in revenue.
  • The effects are chilling. Lung cancer is soaring in the country. Smoking related illnesses are expected to kill more than a million chinese citizens this year and this figure will rise to 3 million by 2050. Right now, there are 300 million smokers in China. 
  • Tobacco control is abysmal. China National and its regulator are the same entity and they share physical location in Beijing as well as website and chief executive. 

Despite the existence of international and regional tobacco control efforts, including legal treaties, progress is thwarted by shambolic regulation or no regulation coupled with deep vested interests that have huge material stakes in the continuance of the tobacco industry. Health wise, China could reach a tipping point with the rise in prevalence of smoking related illnesses and the costs, financial and human, that will engender. Perhaps, that might result in a shift in policy to arrest this escalating epidemic. 

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