Teaching Tobacco

by Rachel Brown:

Imagine attending a school with the phrases “Tobacco helps your success” and “Genius comes from hard work–Tobacco helps you become talented” posted all over campus. At the Sichuan Tobacco Hope School in China, this is the reality. And thousands of miles away at the Pinggu Zhongnanhai School outside Beijing, the brand name of Zhongnanhai cigarettes is emblazoned on the school gates and students’ desks. Even the uniforms are Zhongnanhai’s trademark shade of blue.

These schools are just two examples of the growing number of elementary schools in China funded by tobacco companies through a program called “Project Hope.” Sponsoring one of these schools costs tobacco companies approximately 200,000 yuan, or $31,000, and many are named after popular tobacco brands. Current estimates suggest there are approximately 100 such schools, but Gan Quan, a senior project officer at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, said he would not be surprised if there were twice as many in reality.

Students at Beijing Pinggu Zhongnanhai Love Primary School in China learn in an environment supported by the tobacco industry. (Courtesy Chinese Association on Tobacco Control)

Presumably, tobacco companies hope to inspire brand loyalty in future smokers by sponsoring these schools. And the companies seem to be succeeding. In 2010, the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control (CATC) conducted a survey comparing the Pinggu Zhongnanhai School with a local government-run primary school. Their results suggest that a quarter of the students at Zhongnanhai School had a favorable impression of the Zhongnanhai cigarette brand and would choose that brand if buying cigarettes for their family members. In contrast, none of the students at the local, unfunded primary school thought favorably of the Zhongnanhai brand.

These schools also impact parents’ perceptions of tobacco companies. Since most of the sponsored schools are located in poor, rural communities long neglected by the government, many parents are very thankful to the tobacco companies for providing their children with much-needed educational resources. A study conducted by the CATC in 2009 showed that 18 percent of adults would choose a cigarette brand based on corporate charity work.

Unsurprisingly, public health experts in both the United States and China are alarmed. China already boasts a third of the world’s smokers, and tobacco-related illnesses currently kill one million Chinese annually. According to Kathy Chen, director of China Programs at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, students at these schools are exposed “to pretty much blatant tobacco advertising.”  And it is effective: According to research provided by the Campaign, in the United States, tobacco marketing persuades kids to pick up smoking more often than peer pressure. Moreover, youth are three times more  likely to be affected by advertising than adults are.

Tobacco sponsorship of schools also violates a key World Health Organization (WHO) treaty on tobacco control, which China ratified in 2005. Although China has enacted laws to restrict advertising and sponsorship, they have not been comprehensive or effectively enforced.

Many rural Chinese see the schools as acts of corporate social responsibility in a nation where poverty remains a significant problem.

Villagers [living around the Hope School outside Beijing] think that tobacco is a poison, but money is not poison. In economic conditions tobacco companies can give them support because this place is relatively poor, said Yang Gonghuan, a former deputy director of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Chinese tobacco industry is essentially state-run, which poses unique challenges for tobacco control. The same ministry charged with overseeing the overall implementation of the WHO tobacco control treaty also controls The China National Tobacco Corporation, a government-run monopoly. Unwilling to jeopardize the enormous revenues generated by tobacco companies, while mandated to protect the health of its citizens, the government grapples with thorny conflicts of interest.

Taxation, however, could provide a solution to both China’s educational and tobacco control issues. As Sarah England, head of the WHO’s Tobacco-Free Initiative in China, explained, a significant tax increase on tobacco products would deter those who do not yet smoke from starting, and incentivize those who do smoke to quit. The government could then use revenues from such a tax to expand education and healthcare benefits and provide social services.

If the Chinese government does crack down on these schools, it may curb students’ cigarette brand loyalty. But the government will also face a new problem: finding another way to educate these students.

Rachel Brown ‘15 is in Saybrook College. Contact her at rachel.brown@yale.edu