Three out of 10 cigarettes smoked in China

Hong Kong, September 27 :

At the turn of the 20th century, tobacco baron James Duke flicked through a world atlas, stopped at the population figure of 430 million, jabbed his finger at a map of China and announced, “That is where we are going to sell cigarettes.”

One hundred years on, Duke’s prophesy about the potential for cigarettes sales in China, where the population has since grown to 1.3 billion, has been realised on a literally breath-taking scale.

Three out of every 10 cigarettes produced globally are smoked in China. Cigarette production in China increased seven-fold between 1960 and 2003, from 225 billion a year to 1.8 trillion - and 97 out of every 100 of those cigarettes are smoked within China. More than 300 million men in China are smokers - more than the current population of Duke’s home country, the US.

Out of every 100 men, 67 smoke, a higher percentage than anywhere else in the world apart from Yemen and Djibouti.

Judith Mackay, Hong Kong-based policy advisor to the World Health Organisation and co-author of the newly-published second edition of the “Tobacco Atlas”, says it was the obsession of Duke and his contemporaries that began China’s smoking epidemic.

“The leaders of the tobacco industry have had their eyes on China for more than 100 years and they are not taking them off,” she said. “Duke was interested in China and rightly so in a sense because he could see the population numbers. That interest in China has simply never flagged.”

While it was Duke’s company, British American Tobacco, that first gave the Chinese a taste for cigarettes, it is China’s own state-owned giant Honghe, now the fourth biggest selling cigarette brand in the world.

Between 2002 and 2005, Honghe sold 108 billion cigarettes almost exclusively within China. “It really is quite worrying,”

said Mackay.

In a foreword to the report, written as an advocacy tool by anti-smoking campaigners, American Cancer Society chief executive officer John Seffrin warns, “The world is facing a pandemic of epic proportions because it is under attack by a ruthless industry - the purveyors of tobacco.”

That warning is pertinent to China where they estimate that a third of Chinese men under the age of 30 will be killed by tobacco if current smoking patterns continue and where the direct health costs of smoking are already in the order of $4.29 billion a year.