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Yunnan's tobacco dilemma: revenue vs health

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Tobacco giveth, tobacco taketh away.

According to a recent Xinhua report, more than 45 percent of the Yunnan provincial government's tax receipts come from tobacco. On the other side of the coin, four of the top five causes of death in the province are caused by or aggravated by smoking cigarettes.

With the May 31 World No-Tobacco Day approaching, Yunnan's Health Bureau held its first-ever meeting about tobacco and its effects on public health.

According to a recent investigation into the top causes of death in Yunnan, researchers determined that the top killer among the province's 46 million residents is respiratory disease, followed by "injury and poisoning", cancer, cerebrovascular diseases such as strokes, and heart disease. All but injury and poisoning have proven connections to regular smoking.

Despite the obvious negative impact smoking is having on public health, reducing tobacco consumption in Yunnan is a sensitive issue.

Yunnan is China's largest tobacco-producing region. The largest cigarette production facility in Asia is located in Yuxi, 85 kilometers south of Kunming.

The Hongta cigarette factory in Yuxi produces 90 billion cigarettes annually - enough to supply more than 12 million pack-a-day smokers for a year.

The residents of some of Yunnan's largest cities including Yuxi, Qujing and Chuxiong have benefited from the taxes paid and public projects funded by the province's larger tobacco producers. Hongta and rival Hongyun Honghe Tobacco Group – the world's fouth-largest cigarette producer – have consistently ranked among Yunnan's top companies. These factors and others have made it difficult for the government to address smoking as a public health problem.

China has more than 300 million smokers and millions more who are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke, be it at home, in the workplace or at restaurants and bars. Yunnan itself is home to just under 12 million smokers, with an additional 9.5 million suffering from passive smoking. According to Yunnan Provincial Health Bureau statistics, 20 percent of civil servants, teachers and doctors in the province are smokers.

China recently launched a nationwide ban on smoking in public places that has generally gone unnoticed throughout Yunnan, as well as the rest of the country. Government-run English-language news site InKunming summarizes the state of the public smoking ban in Kunming:

"Generally speaking, most of the in-door smokers can be seen in internet cafés, electronic game bars, and night clubs etc., while there are comparatively less smokers in western restaurants, cinemas, bookstores, tea houses etc. The indoor smoking ban still remains grim in Kunming."

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When I was in Shanghai recently, I noticed posters showing the recent introduction of anti-smoking laws that ban smoking in most public places there. This was mostly adhered to from what I could see. In Yunnan on the other hand, people smoke on small, provincial buses (though fortunately there is enough enforcement to prevent smoking on the larger buses), in restaurants and even taxis (mostly by the drivers themselves)! From what I can gather, smoking is still a big problem in China, but particularly big in Yunnan. There are definately more visible smokers and less enforcement in Kunming compared to Shanghai...and Yunnan in general is still light years behind south-east Asian countries, particularly Thailand and Singapore when it comes to butting out in public places and in general. Hopefully things will start to change for the better here in Yunnan too.

I wonder if smoking is China's way of redressing the gender imbalance?

As per the article - Yunnan and especially Kunming is a proverbial rock in a hard place. As noted - the tobacco companies contribute over 45% of the total GDP and therefore proportionally in taxes and to a lesser extent - employment. The tobacco industry is part of Yunan's delicate financial ecosystem - so not included in those numbers are the numbers of farmers doing the tobacco crop industry (as opposed to more arguably useful crops, such as food staples).

As in the traffic laws (another thread) - Yunnan is quite far from Beijing - and thus has it's own "culture", needs, wants, and interpretations of law. It's up to Beijing to ensure equal, fair, and predominantly uncorrupted enforcement of laws throughout China and to punish and reward officials appropriately. Yunnan has traditionally suffered from chronic economic malaise and only recently has shown signs of perhaps coming to life and competing with it's wealthier neighboring provinces, thanks to leadership stalwarts such as Qiu He. The smoking ban is currently extremely (aka infinitely) low on Kunming's and Yunnan's list of important issues to resolve.

If you haven't noticed - Kunming, Yunnan, and practically every municipality and sub-municipality has an "investment agency". These agencies are not tasked with distributing government money into viable opportunities - they are tasked with FINDING investment to pay for all those massive infrastructures the government has been funding and building - hence (probably) the golf course in the stone forest, the destruction of "lover's lake", and other high profile, seemingly illicit, real estate development activities along with more traditional infrastructure development such as Chenggong, the new international airport, the Kunming light rail systems, and the future ability to potentially drive all the way to Singapore.

All of Yunnan is tasked with FINDING investment to help offset the costs of all those public works projects - which kept people employed over the last few years. And they need to find sustainable income - essentially doubling to tripling the tax revenues (or preferably an order of magnitude increase) - all to help keep people employed and preferably OFF the public employment welfare system and hopefully transitioned into stable, sustainable, non-governmental employment.

Hence the re-opening of allegedly environmentally questionable hydro-power projects, etc etc ad infinitum. These are the pressing needs of this province at this time. Trying to negatively impact the province's primary sources of tax revenue, employment, AND to a lesser extent INVESTMENT, is simply NOT on the agenda - and I doubt it will be for the next 5-10 years...or perhaps in our lifetimes.

Tourism rich spots with abundant foreigners, such as Dali, LiJiang - maybe...Kunming - highly doubtful.

If you think enforcement of the new smoking laws are bad in Kunming, you should see it in a second level city or county seat! Down here no one knows that that any new national laws regarding smoking in public came into effect this year. No matter where one goes, restaurants, buses, bus stations, airport, police stations, grocery stores in the smaller cities of Yunnan, one breathes second hand smoke. And the idea that second hand smoke adversely affects the health of others, is apparently so ridiculous it's humorous to otherwise well-educated people. In years of residence in Yunnan, I've still never seen a billboard against smoking outside Kunming, but I've seen a number of rural areas with large signs about "turning X area into the new modern tobacco cultivation area..."

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