Intended for healthcare professionals


Smoking cessation: state owned tobacco companies in China and Japan are at odds with their countries’ commitments

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: (Published 19 June 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l2328

Linked editorial

State versus private ownership of tobacco companies

  1. Flynn Murphy, reporter and editor,
  2. Gabriel Crossley, reporter
  1. Beijing, People’s Republic of China
  1. Correspondence to: flynnpmurphy{at}

The governments of China and Japan own giant tobacco companies. They’re also in charge of tobacco control. Flynn Murphy and Gabriel Crossley look at how that’s working

Tobacco companies worldwide have gone to great lengths to keep selling products that they now admit kill people.1 In China and Japan those efforts typically take the form of shadowy dialogues between government officials. That’s because both of these governments—despite being signatories to the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control, sponsored by the World Health Organization—own or control large tobacco companies.

The framework calls for signatories to protect tobacco control policy from vested interests,23 but both governments are themselves heavily invested in the strength of their tobacco industries for the jobs and revenue they provide. The factories fuel vast ecosystems of stakeholders, including growers, advertisers, retailers, and officials. It was once common for countries to own all or part of a tobacco company; by 2015 that number was down to 16.4 The size of such companies in China and Japan, however, makes them exceptional. China has by far the biggest tobacco company in the world by market share (China National Tobacco Corp; CNTC), and Japan’s ranks fourth (Japan Tobacco; JT).5

In Japan, the Finance Ministry by law retains a minimum one third stake in JT, the successor company to the nation’s former tobacco monopoly, which was ostensibly privatised in 1985. JT contributed over 864 billion yen (£6.2bn; €7.1bn; $7.8bn) in tobacco taxes in the fiscal year ending May 2018.6The BMJ calculates that the Japanese government’s stake will have yielded about 100 billion yen in additional dividend payments in 2018.

China’s state owned tobacco company is a near monopoly that produces a third of the world’s cigarettes.7 Data are closely held, and CNTC did not respond to …

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