When last year’s earthquake shook apart Sichuan schools, the tobacco companies were there to fund new buildings for primary education.
But the China National Tobacco Corporation may have entered like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. One school built with its tobacco money is now branded the “Sichuan Tobacco Project Hope Primary School” and its walls adorned with pro-nicotine messages like “Work hard for society; Tobacco can help you become an achiever!”
Experts worry the constant exposure to pro-tobacco propaganda may influence the children to become future smoking addicts. Some question the legality of such sponsorship.
“This flies in the face of rules that cigarettes cannot be marketed to children. By putting ‘tobacco’ in the name of the school, cigarette manufacturers are actively promoting youth smoking,” Xu Jiahua, vice director of the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control, said.
China has more than 350 million smokers who produce and consume nearly 40 percent of the world’s cigarettes.
Tobacco is a leading cause of cancer and effects of constant exposure to advertisements will mislead students into thinking that smoking is no big deal, he said.
Meng Lingao, who works for China Tobacco, said tobacco companies are just fulfilling their social obligations. “Tobacco firms should not be barred from contributing to social welfare simply because the cigarettes they produce are harmful to their user’s health,” he said.
“It is OK as long as the firms never explicitly promote student smoking with their influence. But using a slogan like ‘Tobacco can help you become an achiever!’ is probably inappropriate for primary school,” Zhao Jing, a pupil’s mother, said.
Project Hope created 69 other schools sponsored by tobacco companies in Liaoning, Qinghai, Guizhou, Anhui, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hubei and Yunnan provinces, the Beijing Youth Daily reported.
Gu Zhenzhen, spokesman for the China Youth Development Foundation, said the foundation wants to control the number of sponsorships from tobacco and alcohol companies, but some of the poorest rural areas have no alternative sponsors.
He called for more investment in education and stronger social supervision at the local level.
He said there should be stipulations to ban promotion of tobacco when tobacco firms offer sponsorship. The rule that all cigarette packs must carry a warning that “smoking is harmful to health” may also apply in this matter.
As a signatory to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a WTO agreement, the country is supposed to ban tobacco ads, promotion and sponsorship before 2011.