To know if tobacco is the equivalent of the Opium Wars in China, it is useful to briefly review the history. When Christopher Columbus explored the New World in 1492, he found the natives were smoking a native plant, tobacco, which they did as for medicinal and ritual purposes. He was the first who introduced it to Europe.
Columbus could have never imagined that soon after its introduction in Europe, tobacco will become one of the major threats to health in several Latin American and Asian countries.
Tobacco is one of the most addictive substance in the world, was introduced to China via Japan or the Philippines in the 1600s. In 1643, Fang Yizhi, a Chinese scholar, was one of the first to warn of the dangers of tobacco exposure. He wrote that tobacco smoking is too long would “blacken the lungs” and lead to death. Chongzhen, the Chinese emperor at the time, outlawed growing tobacco and smoking its leaves.
In 1858, the Treaty of Tianjin (Tianjin), which ended the first part of the Second Opium War (1856-1860), not only legalized the import of opium, but allowed cigarettes to be imported into China duty-free. By 1900, foreign companies thoroughly permeated China.
In 1929, Fritz Lickint, a German scientist from Dresden, published the first statistical evidence linking tobacco use and lung cancer, a finding that was confirmed in 1950 in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Only in 1999 was a tobacco company Phillip Morris admitted that “there is an overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other serious diseases in smokers.”
Today, while its use has dropped significantly in industrialized countries, it has a devastating impact on the health of the population of China.
As Dr. Bernard Lown, a famous cardiologist, noted in 2007, “the fight against tobacco is not won, it is now relocated.” He also denounced that cigarettes are becoming more exciting and more deadly because of the higher tar and nicotine content.
State-owned China National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC), trading as China Tobacco and founded in 1982, is about 30 per cent of the total production of the world’s cigarettes, and is the largest producer of tobacco products. China National Tobacco Corporation falls under the jurisdiction of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA).
STMA is under constant pressure from the World Trade Organization, to loosen its monopoly. Since 2001, increased access has been granted to foreign companies.
Today, despite the CNTC dominates the Chinese market, foreign brands can still be found in major cities in China. In 2007 it was estimated that 32 percent of CNTC has been the tobacco market in the world.
Tobacco smoking still continues to place a heavy burden on the health of the Chinese people. It is estimated that every day about 2,000 Chinese die because of smoking. China now has about 360 million smokers – a number greater than the U.S. population – who consume 37 percent of the cigarettes in the world. In addition, nearly 800 million people suffer from the effects of passive smoking.
According to the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, smoking is responsible for about 3.2 million deaths per year by 2030.
Tobacco is also costly to the economy. Although tobacco companies paid 864.9 billion yuan in taxes in 2012, when health care costs of people made sick tobacco combined with the loss of productivity, the total cost is probably much higher. Increased health care costs due to smoking are part of the tragic legacy of tobacco.
Ironically, while the U.S. government has been extremely successful fight against smoking at home, the pressure on Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand, to crush their internal tobacco monopoly led flood their markets to American cigarettes. This prompted former U.S. Surgeon Dr. C. Everett Koop argued that “people will look at this era of health care in the world as an imperialist, like everyone else, because the British Empire – but worse.”
By issuance of the China Tobacco Control Plan (2012-2015), the Chinese government announced its intention to reduce the negative effects of smoking. The plan, however, was widely criticized for its lack of concrete proposals.
For effective tobacco control, it is necessary to mobilize communities to educate the people about the health risks and the high cost of smoking, impose punitive fines in class action suits and increase tax on cigarettes
If these measures are not taken, tobacco will end up causing more harm to the Chinese people then the Opium Wars did in the 19th century.