Each week, the UrbaChina team introduces a new aspect of Kunming, the capital city of the province of Yunnan where the third UrbaChina conference will be held on June 3-5.
China is the largest consumer of tobacco in the world. It is also the number 1 country for tobacco production. Most of China’s tobacco is produced in the southern provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou.
It could be said that the province of Yunnan is tobacco-dependent in terms of employment and tax revenues. In some rural districts such as Dehong, the introduction of tobacco crops has helped villagers to increase their income. Furthermore, taxes on tobacco make up the largest portion of Yunnan’s fiscal resources. As was explained in an article published in the Economist, the city of Yuxi, near Kunming, is home to the Hongta group, producers of one the most successful cigarette brands in China. This company has heavily invested in the province, building hotels and financing schools. Connections between the provincial authorities and the tobacco industry are very strong in Yunnan.
This is also the case at the national level. In fact, “China Tobacco”, the parent company of Hongta, is a government-owned corporation, and is the only cigarette producer in China. This industry generates high revenues for the government. However, the new Chinese educated middle class have expressed concern about smoking hazards. Under public pressure, some restrictive policies have been implemented. Since January 2011, smoking has been banned from indoor public spaces at the national level. This policy seems to be enforced in leading cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, but this is not always the case in other places.
In Kunming, the authorities have only reluctantly put up anti-smoking billboards and law-enforcement still remains weak. However, as shown in a research paper published in 2009 (Li et al, 2010), even in Kunming there is growing concern about tobacco consumption. The authors of this study argued that educated urban dwellers were the most likely to support the smoking ban. They also noticed that many Chinese were still unaware of the ill effects of smoking for health.
If the smoking ban is not very effective in Chinese cities, this is bcause of the interests involved in relations between the state and the tobacco industry, as well as the lack of information on health issues caused by smoking.
Clearly, the Chinese provincial authorities should not repeat the mistakes made in the USA or in Europe and should try to think ahead and start to plan the aftermath of tobacco. Even if it is true that there is a demand for tobacco in China right now, it is certain that this will no longer be the case in the near future as the members of the new urban generation become more and more concerned about their health. Furthermore, local governments, including the Kunming authorities, need to understand that tobacco may not be the goose that laid the golden egg after all, as more costly cancer treatments will be needed. Revenues from tobacco should be invested in planning the transition to a tobacco-free Yunnan.