China, the world's largest tobacco producer and consumer, will ban all forms of tobacco promotion by January 2011.
A ban on tobacco advertising has been in place since 1996, but firms have managed to sidestep the rules and promote their brands in other more subtle ways such as sponsoring sporting events, or using their logos without mentioning "cigarettes" on television, radio and in newspapers and magazines.
Xu Guihua, vice president of China Tobacco Control Association, made the landmark announcement on Monday at a seminar in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province. She said the country is committed to fulfill its obligations to the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
China formally became a member of the convention last January.
Xu said the nation lags behind other countries in efforts to control the use of tobacco, and the biggest problem is the lack of national regulations banning smoking in public areas.
To date, fewer than half the cities have framed rules on smoking bans in some public spaces. Efforts to ban smoking in other areas such as karaoke parlors and restaurants have been stifled by unwilling owners and managers who fear a loss of business.
Figures from the Ministry of Health show that China has an estimated 350 million smokers, almost a third of the world's 1.1 billion smokers.
Cigarette makers spent more than 1.6 billion yuan (US$212 million) to promote their brands last year, according to China Youth Daily.
In 2005 the government collected 240 billion yuan (US$31.7 billion) in tobacco taxes.
According to the WHO convention, tobacco products must carry prominent health warnings on the packaging.
This measure needs to be implemented within three years from when China signed the convention.
Within five years, China must fulfill it commitment to comprehensively ban all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.
Last year, authorities found there were 231 instances of tobacco promotion considered illegal. The violators were fined a mere total of 1.23 million yuan (US$162,780).
A senior official from China's State Tobacco Monopoly, who did not want to be named, said the administration was "actively taking measures" to fulfill its obligations to the convention.
Regulations to further control tobacco promotion on the Internet were expected shortly, he said.
Despite a willingness to cooperate, the official said tobacco producers were lawful enterprises, and it was not fair to "butcher the industry."
"There is market demand for tobacco, people can choose if they smoke or not," he told China Daily.
He said tobacco firms are using scientific and technological improvements in tobacco products to "lower" the harmful effects of smoking.
However the WHO has long argued there is no way to make smoking healthier.
Yang Yan, a researcher with Chinese Center for Disease Prevention and Control, said 12 percent of deaths in China are caused by tobacco related illnesses, and by 2025, that figure will climb to 33 percent.
(China Daily August 29, 2007)