Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

CHINA: Deaths Rise With Smoke

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Feb 16 2011 (IPS) - Five years ago China pledged to ban smoking in all indoor public places by January of this year. That promise remains unfulfilled and is today symbolic of the lack of progress made in the fight against tobacco use in China, where up to a million people die of smoking-related complications each year.

Smoking is becoming a serious killer in China. Credit: Mitch Moxley

Smoking is becoming a serious killer in China. Credit: Mitch Moxley

More than half of Chinese men smoke, and a total of 301 million adults currently use tobacco, according to a study by China’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC), released last August. The study found that 70 percent of adults are exposed to secondhand smoke in a given week.

Although the figure dropped from the previous estimate of 350 million smokers, the study, which included interviews with more than 13,000 people conducted over several months, revealed that up to one million people in the country die every year from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease directly related to smoking.

China is the world’s largest consumer of tobacco and Michael O’Leary, head of the World Health Organization, said last year that widespread smoking in China was as deadly as the outbreaks of SARS disease and H1N1.

In 2006, China became a part of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, according to which China pledged to ban smoking in indoor public places, workplaces and public transport by January 2011.

But very little progress has been made combatting smoking in the years since, experts say.

“There is no large-scale smoking ban campaign, no ads and no one cares if children buy cigarettes,” Hu Xingdou, professor at China University of Technology tells IPS. “What’s even more ridiculous is the health warnings written on the back of cigarette packages are in English, and 90 percent of Chinese people don’t speak English.”

Despite the smoking ban pledge, at the time of the CDC survey 63 percent of respondents said they had seen people smoking in public places or at work in the previous 30 days.

“There has been no substantive improvement in the smoking rate or exposure to secondhand smoke,” Yang Gonghuan, deputy director of China’s CDC, said at the time of the study’s publication, according to state media reports. Yang said disease and death related to smoking and second-hand smoke, including cancer and coronary heart disease, will “rise unabated” over the next three years. “The burden on society will be immense and progress in public health will suffer as a result.”

China’s CDC said the government needs to strengthen the country’s anti- tobacco policies and blamed low-price cigarettes (a pack of cigarettes can cost less than a dollar in China), ineffective health warnings on cigarette packages and poor education about the risks of tobacco for the high smoking rate.

More than 55 percent of male doctors in China smoke, and some hospitals are still not tobacco free, according to state media reports. Smoking also places an immense burden on China’s health care system and many poor and rural smokers die before receiving treatment for heart and lung ailments, experts say.

Tobacco use has risen sharply in the developing world in recent decades. The WHO estimates that by 2030 tobacco will kill 10 million people each year around the globe, making it responsible for ten percent of all deaths. Seventy percent of these deaths will occur in the developing world.

China smokes a third of the world’s cigarettes and the average Chinese male smoker averages about a dozen cigarettes per day. The WHO estimates that about one in three Chinese men under 30 years old will ultimately die of smoking related ailments.

At current rates, about 3.5 million Chinese will die from smoking each year by 2030, accounting for over a third of all tobacco-attributed deaths in the world, according to a WHO study called ‘Tobacco Control and China’s Future’ released last month.

Huang Jinrong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Research Institute of Laws, who led a team that investigated a smoking-ban in Internet bars in Beijing, says China’s federal government has been ineffective combatting smoking.

Huang blames the lack of effective anti-smoking laws on the fact that China’s major tobacco companies – the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration and the China National Tobacco Corporation – are owned by the government.

“The tobacco dealers and administration officials are one,” he says. “What can we expect?”

Huang tells IPS that since China signed the framework convention, progress has been made in some major cities. Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai have banned smoking in some public areas, and seven cities – including Tianjin, Chongqing and Shenzhen – last year launched a pilot project, led by the CDC, to create no-smoking environments in public places and workplaces.

Huang lauds the pilot project, but adds: “Without the support of national laws, (the cities) can make just limited progress.”

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