Chinese Officials Stub Out Smoke or Else Demands

Government officials in Gong'An county in China's Hubei province have come under fire for pressuring state employees to smoke more cigarettes.

In the hopes of raising tax revenue and boosting the regional economy, the county told civil servants, including teachers, to smoke nearly a quarter of a million packs of the local brands every year.

After details of the new regulation were reported in a local newspaper, county officials said they had now decided to back off from pursuing the new plan.

A statement posted on the Gong'An government Web site today said the edict was introduced last month to crack down on illegal cigarette smuggling and the trade in counterfeit cigarette brands, claiming that it harmed consumers and led to losses in revenue for the government.

The government said it still intended to pursue an investigation into the habits of government employees to see if any of them smoked smuggled cigarettes.

Under the earlier regulation, departments needed to include in their budgets the purchase of $500,000 worth of locally made cigarettes. Those found smoking international brands or brands from other provinces could be fined or fired from their jobs.

The plan was to be closely monitored, and if bureaucrats and state employees failed to consume the required amount (400 cartons for most departments), their budgets would be cut.

Chen Nianzu, a member of the cigarette-marketing supervision team, told state-run media that "the regulation will boost the local economy via the cigarette tax."

But outraged citizens hit the Internet criticizing the local cigarette quota regulation.

One blogger said, "This is pure corruption. It's a collaboration between officials and businessmen to put the taxpayers money into their own pockets. This money is the taxpayers' blood."

China has more smokers than any other country. Some 350 million light up here and a million people die from smoking-related diseases each year. There is still a general lack of knowledge about the health risks and cigarettes are deeply entrenched in the culture. Cartons are often given to business associates and to family and friends as gifts.

Local media say that the measure is an attempt to promote and protect the local brand against competition from cigarettes from neighboring provinces.