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Recognizing that tobacco consumption has become a leading cause for premature death worldwide, the international community, under the auspice of WHO, successfully developed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) with unanimous adoption by the 192 member states in May 2003. It is the first time that the Organization has used its constitutional right to develop an internationally legal instrument in global health governance. Therefore, it is a seminal event in global health. It also represents an unprecedented collective action to curb the global tobacco epidemic. The convention came into force in February 2005. With 174 party members covering 87% of the World’s population, the FCTC has been among the most widely and rapidly embraced international conventions devoted to health in the history of the United Nations. China contributed to the negotiation of the FCTC and signed the international convention in 2003. On 29 August 2009, the convention was ratified by the standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, China’s top legislative body, which indicates that China is under legal obligation to internalize the norms stipulated in the FCTC so as to effectively control tobacco use.

Many countries have put the FCTC into practice. By enacting and enforcing national anti-tobacco law, those countries have met the requirements stipulated in the FCTC. They imposed stringent measures on tobacco use. For example, Ireland has made tobacco-prohibiting law in all public places, and Australia, in order to curb its own tobacco epidemic, has comprehensively banned tobacco advertisement and has passed tobacco ‘plain packaging’ legislation.

China is home to over 300 million smokers; the largest population of smokers in the world. More than 700 million people are exposed to second-hand smoking because of the absence of national legislation on tobacco control. Annually, more than 1 million people die prematurely from tobacco-induced diseases such as lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases. China is the largest producer of tobacco products, accounting for 1/3 the output in the world; 95% of which are consumed domestically.  Although some provinces have enacted local laws or regulations on tobacco control, they are unenforceable in practice. Hidden advertisements for tobacco are ubiquitous. Cigarettes are beautifully packaged. Tobacco production and consumption are encouraged by interest groups. The governments, both central and local, are addicted to the revenues generated by the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry in China is state-owned. In other words, the government is also one of the interest groups of the tobacco production process. Therefore, the government is half-hearted in implementing the FCTC.

China’s tobacco control policy has been well documented. The majority of the literature has been researched from the perspective of public health, focusing on the mortality or morbidity brought about by smoking cigarettes. (Wang JB, et al., 2010) Some other scholars have studied China’s tobacco control from an economic perspective, and have explored the detrimental influence on China’s economy. They argue that China’s tobacco problem should be tackled with economic tools; for example, by raising tax on tobacco products. (Teh-wei Hu, et al., 2010) These studies focus on the interaction between politics and tobacco control without touching upon China’s politics.  However, given that so much scientific data on tobacco control has been provided by the FCTC, it is hard not to conclude that it is politics that accounts for China’s poor performance in meeting the FCTC’s requirements.  Without the support of the central government, particularly that of the standing committee of the Politbureau, tobacco control is very hard to implement.

I find the investigation of China’s tobacco control politics to be both interesting and rewarding, as it offers a better understanding as to why the infrastructure, resources and political commitment to sustain tobacco control efforts are still absent. I feel that political commitment should be enlisted to implement the FCTC’s aims and launch tobacco control effectively. In the process, political resources should be mobilized to overcome pressure from interest groups in tobacco development, to empower NGOs, to reallocate resources in favour of anti-tobacco measures, and to establish a national strategy for tobacco control. I believe it is also important for the Chinese government to support tobacco victims in filing litigations against the tobacco industry. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan provides an unparalleled window opportunity to control a tobacco epidemic in a country with 350 million smokers.

Dr Jiyong Jin is Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellow, and a member of the Global Economic Governance programme.

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