New draft of China's anti-smoking law weaker than health advocates had hoped

Students with no smoking signs to support World No Tobacco Day at a primary school in Handan, northern China's Hebei province, on May 30, 2016.
Students with no smoking signs to support World No Tobacco Day at a primary school in Handan, northern China's Hebei province, on May 30, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (Reuters) - A recent draft of the Chinese national anti-smoking law significantly weakens previously proposed legislation, several people familiar with the Bill told Reuters, and some public health advocates said the powerful state-owned tobacco monopoly had lobbied for the changes.

The advocates and some former government officials involved in discussions with officials close to the lawmaking process said the tobacco industry had urged the legislative affairs office of the State Council, China's Cabinet, to keep allowing cigarette advertisements, and enable workplaces, restaurants and other public places to create enclaves for smokers.

An earlier version of the law, released for public comment in 2014, included provisions banning smoking in workplaces and on public transportation, as well as curbs on tobacco ads and promotion, according to health groups.

"Because the tobacco industry is a big part of the government, they don't need to make these arguments publicly,"said a healthcare advocate who has been involved in high level meetings on the development of the law. "It's not like big multinational tobacco companies that have to lobby to influence the process. They are inside the process."

A second public health advocate, also closely involved in developing the legislation, added: "They are a very strong organisation, so they have really made a major impact. It's because they contribute so much in tax revenue to the state."

The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, which oversees China National Tobacco Corporation, did not respond to requests for comment.

China National Tobacco Corporation makes hundreds of brands including the popular Red Pagoda Mountain, while foreign cigarette makers have a tiny presence in comparison.

A spokesman for China's National Health and Family Planning Commission, which was involved in developing early drafts of the law, said the law was under the supervision of the State Council's Legislative Affairs Office.

The State Council Information Office, the cabinet's public relations department, did not respond to a request for comment.

The state monopoly has 98 per cent of a market of more than 300 million smokers, making China the world's largest producer and consumer of cigarettes. It contributes about 7 to 10 per cent of government tax revenues annually.

Anti-smoking advocates had hoped for a complete ban on smoking in public places nationwide, replicating tougher municipal laws in cities like Beijing that have been implemented with relative success.

Not every major city has tighter anti-smoking rules, and most of the country would abide by the national legislation.

The most recent draft of the national anti-smoking law, circulated in April among those involved in its development, stops short of banning tobacco ads.

Ads are currently banned in public places and mass media, but they still appear widely in convenience stores and kiosks.

The latest draft also allows government offices and other workplaces, as well as hospital compounds, restaurants and cafes, to set up smoking rooms, according to several sources who have seen the draft.

However, the law would impose fines for those violating these rules and create more school programmes educating children about the dangers of smoking.

"Of course, as a supporter of public health I ... wish that hospitals and schools would be completely smoke free," said Mr Wang Benjin, deputy director of the Beijing Health Inspection Bureau.

The earlier draft contained stronger curbs, said health groups, who had hoped the national law would completely ban smoking in public places.

Bernhard Schwartländer, the World Health Organisation (WHO) representative in China, expressed disappointment in a statement this week at what he termed "problematic loopholes" for smokers in the draft law.

"Sadly, it is clear that the vested interests of the tobacco industry have been able to corrupt the national law discussions with a series of superficially compelling yet completely false arguments," he said in the statement.

He added that the industry had argued that being too tough on cigarettes would hurt the broader Chinese economy and that enforcement would be too challenging.

Sales of the cheapest cigarettes fell 5.5 per cent in the year to March 2016 from the previous year in China, according to the WHO, after a major tax hike.

Chinese public health advocates were optimistic last year about prospects for restricting smoking, a habit that has become a major burden on the healthcare system.

Tobacco-related illnesses kill more than 1 million people annually in China, according to the WHO.

Beijing banned smoking in public places on June 1 last year, and marked the anniversary in a ceremony this week, draping a large banner bearing a no-smoking sign across its National Stadium.

Recent studies by municipal health authorities show broad support for bans on smoking in public places, and authorities say enforcement of the rules has been successful.