Imagine sending your kids to Marlboro Elementary, where slogans proclaim the virtues of smoking, cigarette-shaped sweets are available in the vending machines and single-packaged cigarettes can be purchased outside.
That might sound like a bad scene in a black comedy, but for the parents of children in at least 100 Chinese primary schools, this is becoming reality.
China’s state tobacco company is sponsoring dozens of primary schools in developing rural areas, according to a report at the Daily Telegraph. And sponsorship doesn’t just mean getting the company’s name on a plaque somewhere; for the equivalent of about $30,000, cigarette brands get the right to name a school and place pro-tobacco slogans around the property.
“On the gates of these schools, you’ll see slogans that say ‘Genius comes from hard work -- Tobacco helps you become talented,’” Xu Guihua, head of the private Chinese Association on Tobacco Control, told Bloomberg.
The Telegraph reports that one school has been named “Sichuan Tobacco Hope Primary School,” while others have been named after cigarette brands Zhongnanhai and Liqun.
What’s more, parents are often unaware that cigarettes are harmful, and are supportive of tobacco brands because they see the brands carrying out charitable activities in their communities, according to Wu Yiqun, a health activist at the Think Tank Research Centre for Health Development.
"Inside the schools, they often have branded uniforms and distribute cigarette-shaped sweets. Vendors near the school gates usually sell cigarettes one-by-one, rather than in packets," Wu told the Telegraph.
“They are pinning their hopes on young people taking up smoking,” Xu Guiha of the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control told Bloomberg.
There are an estimated 320 million smokers in China, about a third of the world’s total. Despite a recent ban on smoking in public places, which critics say has been largely ignored, China’s tobacco industry has been seeing skyrocketing sales.
Last year, China’s tobacco industry was worth $95 billion, up 17 per cent from the previous year. Sales have averaged 19 per cent growth since 2006.
As Bloomberg notes, one factor that may be keeping anti-smoking efforts from taking hold may be the fact that the country’s tobacco regulator the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, also runs the state cigarette maker, China National Tobacco Corp., which is the world’s largest cigarette maker.
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