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Tobacco cons worse than economic perks
(China Daily) Updated:2006-02-09 09:36

  In the abundance of ethical dilemmas that threaten to subvert our regular sense of right and wrong, tobacco remains trickier than most.

  For health advocates and those of us who find smoke from burning tobacco repulsive, it is a devil that has to be stopped at any price.

  Tobacco is believed the No 2 killer of human lives, second only to hyper-tension.

  Five million people die of tobacco-related illness around the world every single year, the World Health Organization estimates. At home, our Health Ministry attributes 1 million deaths each year to tobacco.

  For industry apologists and some local governments who rely on tobacco for revenues, however, it is something neither individual citizens, nor the country can afford to lose.

  Industry insiders love and promote some tobacco addicts' theory that smoking helps reduce tension and anxiety.

  "Moderate smoking is beneficial for people's physiological and psychological well-being," says a book in a "popular science" series sponsored by China Tobacco. "Studies have shown that smoking may improve memory."

  The economic argument sounds even more compelling nearly 5 million rural households and 4 million retailers in China make a living based on tobacco. And tobacco accounts for 10 per cent of the government's overall tax revenues.

  Do you want to take the moral risk of ruining the livelihoods of millions when you deal with a public health problem?

  Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Sha Zukang struck that sensitive chord on Tuesday when he addressed signatories of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

  Briefing his audience on recent Chinese moves to control tobacco, Sha told treaty signatories that China would faithfully fulfil its control obligations, taking into account its national conditions.

  His words were a reminder of the sense of helplessness in trying to get out of a seemingly unbreakable cycle.

  Tobacco has indeed been an efficient GDP (gross domestic product) booster and job creator. In places like Yunnan Province, tobacco is simply the foremost economic pillar. Local economic indices are sure to plummet without such a prolific cash cow.

  But that should not blind us to tobacco's negative impacts on society. Our economy's addiction to it is morbid and thus has to be weaned.

  Tobacco contributes to GDP in two ways its production and sales add to local and national revenues, and its consumption drives up demand for medical services. But the latter half is usually neglected or played down.

  It is encouraging to hear Ambassador Sha say our country is tightening its grip on tobacco. It is nice that our government will not approve any new cigarette factories, and it will try to make the 2008 Olympics in Beijing a no-smoking event.

  Still we reserve our optimism because numbers alone do not mean everything.

  We have seen a continuous drop in the numbers of cigarette factories and brand names in recent years. Profits and tax turnover of the industry, however, showed a 14-per cent rise year-on-year in 2005.

  The recent national conference on tobacco in 2006 displayed an industry-wide consensus on conglomeration. A roadmap for the next five years envisioned a dozen conglomerates nationwide.

  That no doubt means a bright future for the industry. But what will it mean in a larger context?

  It is sad if people in the tobacco industry do not feel a guilty conscience talking about "scientific perspective on development" or "green GDP."

  Tobacco-generated GDP is not green at all.

  If our government can help foreign opium poppy growers find economic alternatives to stem the drug problem, why could not it do the same to our tobacco-growing population?

  We do not believe tobacco is the only viable answer to poverty in those areas.





















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