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What will it take to get China’s 350 million smokers to quit? Public bans, tax hikes on the cards

China has not done enough to control smoking even though the mainland authorities plan to put a smoking ban into effect within this year, said World Health Organisation Director-General Margaret Chan.

“Tobacco control is very close to my heart and a very important subject for the World Health Organisation,” Chan said at a meeting on the sidelines of the 9th Global Conference on Health Promotion in Shanghai. “The WHO’s member states have developed and adopted the WHO framework convention on tobacco control.”

The world’s largest tobacco market, with 350 million smokers, China has not yet passed a national law to ban smoking in public places. Of more than 600 cities across the country, only 18 have passed their own smoking control regulations.

“I used to say to Chinese officials that you have done well but not enough and there is room for further improvement,” Chan said. “I look forward to seeing the progress of China’s national tobacco control law.”

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Mao Qunan, spokesman for the National Health and Family Planning Commission, China’s health authority, said a national law is expected to go into effect within this year.

Chan said she encouraged dozens of mainland city mayors who were attending the conference to introduce regulatory or fiscal measures to prevent the marketing of tobacco products and to stop tobacco sponsorships of sports events.

Mao said the biggest obstacle in the legislation was that the public did not have adequate awareness of the dangers from smoking.

“The Chinese government is beefing up an awareness campaign on smoking control, making laws and reforming the tobacco tax and price system to honour our commitment to the WHO’s framework convention on smoking control,” he said.

The mainland’s tax reform on tobacco products, which began seven years ago, has met strong resistance from tobacco producers and cigarettes sold on the mainland are still among the cheapest in the world, Wu Yiqun, a Beijing-based smoking control campaigner, told the Economic Observer.

The official said that health promotion work, such as smoking control, needed multisector collaboration. “Without support and involvement from other departments, many of our tasks can’t be achieved,” he said.

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A Shanghai Declaration on Health Promotion was released at the conference, urging governments across the world to integrate health into their sustainable development agenda.

For a long time, the mainland has been lacklustre in global health rankings for allocating only 5-6 per cent of its gross domestic product to health services. Premier Li Keqiang, in his keynote speech at the conference on Monday, said China’s spending on health services has been increasing year by year over the past few years. He did not give specific figures.

“We will put health in a strategic position and regard it as a priority task. In our development mindset, we should prioritise health and emphasise health goals in our economic and social planning,” Li said. “Public policies should favour health goals and fiscal spending should guarantee the development of health-related causes.”