Tobacco - China’s addiction to an outdated and impoverishing economy

Apr 14, 2017

BEIJING, 14 April 2017 – Smoking-related diseases are on track to claim more than 200 million lives in China this century, a new joint WHO/UNDP report warns. The majority of these deaths will occur in China’s poorest and most vulnerable communities unless critical steps are taken to reduce China’s dependency on tobacco. 

The Bill China Cannot Afford: Health Economic and Social Costs of China’s Tobacco Epidemic is a groundbreaking report co-authored by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The report, launched today, explores the current health, social and economic costs of tobacco on China’s development, and outlines the tobacco control measures that could avert many millions of deaths.

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco, and a staggering 44% of the world’s cigarettes are smoked in China. Over one million lives a year are lost in this country from tobacco-related diseases.

“If nothing is done to reduce these numbers and introduce more progressive policies, the consequences could be devastating not just for the health of people across the country, but also for China’s economy as a whole. The rapid increase in costs associated with tobacco use in China is unsustainable, the report reveals, estimating the total annual economic cost in 2014 at RMB 350 billion (USD 57 billion), an increase of 1000% since 2000,” said Dr Bernhard Schwartländer, WHO Representative in China.

Projected increases in these costs will lead to negative spillover effects across many sectors, placing increasing challenges to Chinese economy and businesses, in addition to the social welfare and health systems. Without rapid and decisive action, these pressures will exacerbate already growing inequalities across the country. The recommendations outlined in this report provide a comprehensive policy package that will bring enormous benefits to health in China.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now commit governments to reduce premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) by one-third over the next 15 years. Tobacco is one of the main risk factors driving the NCDs epidemic.

“In the adopting of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the international community recognized that tobacco control is a priority issue, for health and for development more broadly,” said Nicholas Rosellini, UNDP Resident Representative in China. “Without taking serious action to tackle the huge threat tobacco poses towards China, we will have difficulty reaching the SDGs vision of a more equitable, healthy and sustainable world. This report will be key to ensuring that policies adopted now have long-lasting effects for ending poverty, promoting healthy lives and contributing to meeting all 2030 SDG targets.”

The implementation of a national smoke free law, requiring all indoor public places to be 100% smoke free, is one of the key recommendations in the report. Three of China’s four Tier 1 cities – Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai – have already passed and are currently implementing comprehensive smoke-free laws.

The last tobacco tax increase announced by the Ministry of Finance in May 2015 was significant in that it led to a slight rise in the retail price of cigarettes. Compared to 2014, 2015 saw a reduction in sales of cigarettes for the first time in twenty years, while government revenues have increased – a real win-win situation.  However, the increase in price for cigarettes has been significantly lower than the average increase in salaries, making cigarettes in China increasingly more affordable. The report calls for increasing the retail price of cigarettes by 50% and sustaining future price increases. This could lead to 47 million fewer male smokers and 20 million fewer premature deaths averted over 50 years as a result. More than half of these averted deaths would be in the two lowest income quintiles.

“Raising tobacco taxes is one of the most cost-effective measures to reduce tobacco consumption, while also generating substantial revenue for health and other essential programs – investments that ultimately benefit the entire population,” said Mr Bert Hofman, World Bank Country Director for China, Mongolia and Korea..

Overall, the health and broader social, economic and environmental costs of tobacco use add up to a bill that China cannot afford. “This is especially true as China’s leaders have committed to an ambitious Healthy China 2030 agenda. Implementing a strong package of tobacco control policies that are fundamentally targeted towards helping poorer communities, China will take important steps in its bold agenda to eliminate poverty and to reduce existing inequities and social disparities across the country”, said Professor Hu Angang, Dean of Institute for Contemporary China Studies from Tsinghua University.

The report was launched at a media event at WHO’s Beijing office, bringing together WHO and UNDP, World Bank, media and leading economists in support of increased action to combat China’s tobacco epidemic.

To download the report:

About the World Health Organization

WHO is the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system. It is responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.

About the United Nations Development Programme

UNDP partners with people at all levels of society to help build nations that can withstand crisis, and drive and sustain the kind of growth that improves the quality of life for everyone. On the ground in around 170 countries and territories, we offer global perspective and local insight to help empower lives and build resilient nations.

Contact information

For more information please contact:

Ms WU Linlin, WHO China
Tel: +86 10 6532 7191

Ms. ZHANG Wei, UNDP China


Tel: +8610 8532 0715


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