Efforts called to block students' access to smokes

Updated: 2012-05-31 12:15


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KUNMING - Students swarmed to the seller's stand right in front of the school gate after the bell rang. Some bought snacks or Coca Cola, and some bought cigarettes before heading home.

Within half an hour of the end of school, four uniformed students had left with full cigarettes packs in hand. The stand is at the gateway of the Experimental High School Affiliated to Yunnan Normal University in downtown Kunming, capital city of southwest China's Yunnan Province.

According to the stand owner, a woman from Jiangxi Province, high school students often came to the stand to buy cigarettes, usually after school.

"They don't dare smoke in school for fear of being caught by teachers," said the woman, without revealing her name.

The woman denied knowing it was forbidden to sell cigarettes to children or teenagers.

Easy access

The scene described above is not unusual in the so-called city of eternal spring. According to a survey conducted by a local non-government organization on tobacco control, teenagers are exposed to a relatively high number of cigarette-selling stores.

The Pioneers for Health Consultancy Center (PFH) and Yunnan Provincial Health Education Institution (YPHEI) organized volunteers to count the number of these stores and observe their sales to teenagers in April and May.

In the 17-sq-km downtown area covering nearly 50 primary and high schools, there was nearly 1,000 retail stores selling cigarettes, according to the survey result.

The result was released on Wednesday ahead of World No Tobacco Day, which falls on Thursday, with the theme of "Tobacco Industry Interference" this year.

Tobacco stores aren't the only places cigarettes can be bought in Kunming. Grocery stores, news stands, print shops, laundries, real estate agencies, photo studios and shoe repair shops also sell them.

Among these stores, nearly 50 percent did not have any sign that said selling tobacco to teenagers was prohibited.

Volunteers also interviewed 86 students from primary and high schools, and 89 percent of them said it was very easy for them to buy cigarettes. More than 13 of them witnessed or heard their peers buying unpacked cigarettes.

China signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2003 and made it effective as of January 2006.

The FCTC requires signed parties to forbid retailers from sales of tobacco products to and by minors, and to display a specified sign of such forbiddance. Sales of unpacked cigarettes are also not allowed.

Minors, with weaker self-discipline and more curiosity psychologically, tend to smoke easily if they have access without any trouble, said Duan Jun, chief with the YPHEI.

Duan said underage students, usually with little pocket money, often bought unpacked cigarettes.

Wang Chen, which is not his real name, a 17-year-old vocational school student majoring in computer, said he picked up smoking three years ago in junior high school because of study pressure ahead of the senior high entrance exam.

"Criticised by my teacher, I became sad and asked for a cigarette while seeing my classmates smoking in the remote corner, " Wang said after buying a pack of Hongtashan-brand cigarette with 10 yuan at a grocery store near the school gate.

In June 2010, China's education and health ministries issued a regulation, banning anyone, including students and visitors, from smoking at primary or high schools, nurseries and kindergartens, as well as at vocational schools.

Wang said since smoking was not allowed in school, they just smoked secretly in the toilets or dormitories.

The situation is similar in other parts of China. China has more than 300 million smokers, and among them, 50 million are minors under the age of 18, statistics show.

Industry interference

Wang, born and growing up in Yuxi, a major city where tobacco is produced, said a vast area of green cured tobacco land "looked very pretty" at his hometown.

He said he did not hate the industry that much, as they had received help from them.

"The cigarettes factories donated furniture and stationery to our primary school when I was young," he said.

According to Susan Henderson, a representative with the tobacco free initiative team from the WHO, such donation is a tactic from tobacco industry aimed to get a positive view from the public.

Tobacco companies "interfered" in the anti-smoking campaigns by initiating philanthropy, funding research and other ways.

"They buy friends and social respectability by philanthropy, and fund researches to create doubt about evidence of health effect of tobacco use," said Susan.

Yunnan is China's largest tobacco production province. The plantation area of cured tobacco exceeded 467,000 hectares last year. Cigarette output of 7.5 million boxes last year made up 40 percent of the country's total production amount, and taxes paid by the industry exceeded 86 billion yuan (13.56 billion U.S. dollars).

The huge impact of the industry in the province has hampered tobacco control work, and also has had a positive impact on teenagers' attitude towards the industry, said Li Xiaoliang, executive director with the PFH.

"Teenagers and children are more likely to be influenced by such interference," said Li.

Li said the survey had drawn attention from government workers, and he was confident more government efforts would be seen.

"Instead of just attaching importance to tobacco-related taxes, they now have realized the health of the youth is being affected," said Li.

Yue Bingfei, a member with the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and a research fellow with the National Institute for the Control of Pharmaceutical and Biological Products, said smoking shots on screen also attracted teenagers to imitate.

Being sponsored by tobacco companies, TV plays and movies often require stars, who are idols of the underage, to smoke on screen, prompting wide imitations of the young, said Yue.

Last February, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television ordered film and TV studios to restrict smoking scenes and to ban shots showing tobacco brands or minors in scenes while others are smoking. But such scenes still appear in recent plays.

Yue urged the regulation to be legislated, and the government to make tougher efforts to prevent the young from being exposed to tobacco sales and tobacco-related interference.