x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

China sends public a new smoke signal

China's media watchdog orders limits on showing on-screen smoking in and effort to cut tobacco consumption.

A street scene in the city of Fuyang. More than a million Chinese die tobacco-related deaths annually.
A street scene in the city of Fuyang. More than a million Chinese die tobacco-related deaths annually.

BEIJING // In a country where more than half of adult males smokes, some might say it is only the pursuit of realism that leads to the widespread depiction of smoking in Chinese films and TV shows.

According to the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control, a staggering 85 per cent of TV shows and movies contain scenes showing tobacco consumption.

And those scenes often presenting the habit as a facet of power, masculinity or emotional depth.

Historic dramas show Chairman Mao puffing away - he was in reality a heavy smoker - and a cigarette is often the prop of choice for businessmen, the rich and the lovelorn in soaps and movies set in the modern day.

Now, however, all that may be about to change.

Earlier this month, China's media watchdog called for "strict control" of on-screen smoking, saying excessive tobacco consumption in visual entertainment was encouraging people to take up the habit.

New rules published on the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television's (SARFT) website said only smoking scenes deemed essential to the plot and "short in length" would now be permitted.

The agency, which vets all movies and TV shows in China, also decreed that on-screen cigarettes should from now on be of indeterminate brand and that children should not appear in shots where anyone lights up.

"Excessive smoking in films and TV plays is not in line with China's fundamental standpoint of tobacco control, and likely has a bad influence on the public, especially the under-aged," the agency said in a preamble to the new rules.

Popular television programmes in China can attract audiences of hundreds of millions and, in a recent survey of schoolchildren here, one third of them said they would be more likely to try smoking if they saw their favourite actor do it.

But while antismoking activists have welcomed SARFT's move, they say much more still needs to be done to break China's deeply ingrained smoking culture.

China is home to more than 300 million smokers - the largest number in the world - and awareness that cigarettes can cause lung cancer, heart disease and strokes, as well as other diseases, remains low.

China produces over 800 brands of cigarettes - ranging in price from 20 yuan to 300 yuan (Dh11 to Dh167) a packet. Expensive brands such as ChungHwa are given out at weddings and presented to prospective business partners or officials to facilitate a deal or to expedite paperwork.

Men, when meeting for the first time, will often light up together to break the ice. And it's not uncommon to see people eating and smoking at the same time. One common saying is "A cigarette after dinner is better than life after death."

Failure, to change such thinking, say experts, is going to cost the country.

More than a million people a year already die from tobacco-related illnesses in China, making it the country's top killer.

And, according to a report by Chinese and foreign experts published in January, that number is set to rise to 2 million by 2020 unless strong steps are taken.

The report also calculated that health costs associated with smoking accounted for nearly 62 billion yuan (Dh34.6bn) last year.

The problem, say activists, is that while the government ostensibly espouses an antismoking position, it is ultimately invested in more people buying cigarettes.

China National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC), the world's largest producer of tobacco products, is a state-owned enterprise, controlled by the same government agency that is charged with carrying out the country's smoking laws.

The CNTC generated more than half a trillion yuan (Dh279bn) in profit and taxes for the government in 2009 - or about 7.5 per cent of the government's revenue - and the company employs more than half a million people.

Pressure from the CNTC is widely thought to be the reason the government failed to honour a pledge to introduce a nationwide ban on smoking in public places by January of this year, and why cigarettes packages do not carry visual health warnings - both of which China is obliged to do as a signatory to the World Heath Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

"If an entity can behave as both a private company and part of government, it will always have the economic leverage and policymaking power to thwart tobacco control efforts," said Dr Yang Gonghuan, director of China's National Office of Tobacco Control.

When antismoking legislation is introduced it often contains loopholes, or enforcement responsibility is unclear.

Some fear the SARFT's new rules might go the same way as recent bans on tobacco advertising - which the companies circumvented by giving to charity instead, with the result that one school in Sichuan was renamed "Tobacco Hope Primary School".

Activists worry that the new cinema and television rules give the state antismoking body too much discretion to decide when a film contains too much smoking or when a scene is too long.

"In the rule it says the films are not allowed to contain many smoking scenes, but what's the standard about 'many?'" said Suo Chao of the Chinese Association of Tobacco Control. "We think that needs to be improved."