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Urumqi, in the extreme north-west Xinjiang Province of China, could be regarded as one of the remotest cities on earth, yet at the same time—nestling between Mongolia, Russia, and northern Pakistan—the centre of Asia.
Yet even here, in the “Wild West” of China, the Marlboro cowboy already rides the range. During one day at China's 10th National Conference on Smoking and Health in Xinjiang, I stopped counting the Marlboro hats at 300, shading the eyes of men and women alike in the bright sunlight and 50°C temperature. They were far more stylish than any other hat in sight, and therein lies a problem. Philip Morris might say it does not sell these hats, but if they are being produced by some local entrepreneur, it is highly unlikely there are any copyright or patent cases pending. But it is very much in Philip Morris's interest for the hats to be widely worn—they are walking advertisements for its product.
China banned all electronic and print advertising in 1992, but the national law did not cover either sponsorship or other promotion, or outdoor advertising (which still depends on each local city's administration, and is therefore applied haphazardly throughout the country).
The smoking rates in China have not decreased in the last 20 years and the population increases during this period means that there are now more smokers. It is disappointing that the 10th World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Beijing in 1997 has not resulted in any great leap forward. With about two thirds of men and 4% of women smoking in China, no stone should be left unturned in bringing down these high male rates and preventing a rise in smoking among girls and women.
No country can ever sit back and relax, even after major tobacco legislation such as the 1992 law in China. It is now time for the single health warning to be replaced by much stronger, rotating warnings; for smoke-free areas to be extended; for tobacco tax policy to be reviewed; and for the advertising ban to be strengthened to include a ban on all forms of advertising, sponsorship and promotion—including the Marlboro hats in remote Xinjiang.