Health concerns go up in smoke in China: World Non-Smoking Day is a non-starter in Yunnan, reports Teresa Poole from Kunming

AT THE Kunming cigarette factory in Yunnan province, there is a German machine that rolls 6,000 cigarettes a minute. It is an awesome sight, compared with the antiquated machinery to be found in many of China's state enterprise factories. The factory manager, Chen Chuanbai, has none of the problems of other state industry bosses whose unwanted products languish in warehouses. Yunnan, the premier tobacco province of China, makes 265 billion cigarettes a year and still cannot meet demand. This is just as well in one respect; Yunnan is a very poor region and the provincial government relies on tobacco taxes for four-fifths of its total revenues.

Today is World Non- Smoking Day but it is unlikely to make much impact in Yunnan. Mr Chen's main preoccupations at the moment are the opening of an even more modern production line, and boosting exports, which account for only a tiny proportion of output. He shows off one of the factory's brands, Sanchi, which is targeted at Japanese women.

'Firstly these cigarettes can treat bronchitis,' he says. 'Also the packaging is quite fashionable which will enable these ladies to look smart. We got a professional doctor who has a PhD to study Sanchi, and he concluded that it really offers very good treatment for people's health. Especially it can give slow treatment for bronchitis.'

In Peking, Dr Zhang Yifang, the vice-president of the Association on Smoking and Health, faces a considerable challenge. China is the world's biggest manufacturer and seller of tobacco; in 1993, 1.6 billion cigarettes were sold in China to its 300 million smokers. According to Dr Zhang, 60 per cent of men over 15 years old, and 9 per cent of women are smokers.

The numbers are rising, with the most marked increases among women and teenagers. Smoking is already the country's biggest killer, and Dr Zhang reckons that if it is not reduced, by the year 2030 there will be 3.17 million smoking-related deaths a year.

For Dr Zhang there are too many Goliaths to slay. The tobacco industry is the biggest single earner for central government tax coffers and last year contributed a total 41bn yuan ( pounds 3.4bn). Secondly, smoking is culturally and socially ingrained in the Chinese way of life and economic reform has only increased the attraction of a cigarette packet as a status symbol. Finally, China is viewed by Western cigarette manufacturers, who face ever stricter health and cultural pressures on their home turf, as the world's most attractive potential market.

China's tobacco industry is still a state monopoly, but it is the activities and promotions of foreign companies that concern the anti-smoking lobby the most. Last year, for instance, Philip Morris, whose Marlboro Man stares down from billboards across China, signed an agreement with the state China National Tobacco Corp to manufacture and sell cigarettes in China.

On paper, China has strict laws on smoking: cigarette packets must carry a health warning; advertisements are banned on television, radio and in the print media; and there is even a 1989 regulation that bans or limits smoking in public places.

In practice, billboards are the main vehicle for advertising, sponsorship and the use of brand-names often get around the restrictions on direct advertising, and everyone smokes everywhere, encouraged by the ubiquitous smokers in Chinese-made films and television programmes.

In Yunnan, where long- term health costs take second place to short-term budget considerations, Mr He says: 'In the domestic market, supply is still short of demand. We also want to reduce prices of the best brands. Basically, our aim is to try to produce more volume, and cut prices.'