Video: How a tobacco giant changed a global anti-tobacco treaty

Smoking rates have declined dramatically in much of the world since the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was signed 20 years ago. But not in China – and its people are suffering the consequences.

December 20, 2023Updated February 07, 2024 at 3:15pm EST

Tobacco kills more than 3,000 people a day in China, amounting to more than 1 million deaths per year. Almost all of them spend their lifetime smoking cigarettes made by China National Tobacco Corp., the country’s state-owned cigarette monopoly.

Though its products cause mass death, China Tobacco is enormously powerful within the Chinese government. In 2022, it generated $213 billion in profits and taxes for the central government. That’s roughly equivalent to China’s annual defense budget and more than the net income of Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. combined.

China Tobacco has used that power to keep cigarette sales high — a project that traces its roots to an effort to reshape a global anti-tobacco treaty 20 years ago.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control required governments to implement a host of reforms meant to curb the power of the tobacco industry and inform consumers about the health threats posed by smoking. Finalized in 2003, the convention required governments to ban indoor smoking in public places, outlaw tobacco advertising and prevent cigarette companies from making deceptive health claims.

China signed the treaty, but only after it allowed China Tobacco to review the Chinese translation. The company used that process to subtly alter the text in dozens of places, weakening core requirements. That’s according to experts who reviewed the text for The Examination — and China Tobacco itself, which bragged about its accomplishment in a little-known book. 

This video is also available in Chinese and German thanks to media partners at Initium Media, Der Spiegel and Paper Trail Media.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this video incorrectly described anti-tobacco advocate Judith MacKay's role at the 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control talks in Geneva. The video has been updated to reflect this correction.

The Examination

Jason McLure

Jason McLure is a correspondent for The Examination.

Stanley Leung

Stanley Leung is a freelance videographer based in Hong Kong.