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CEO's Column
September 2010


Chief Executive Officer

You've probably heard this one before: "The Chinese expression for ‘crisis' is a combination of the words ‘danger' and ‘opportunity.'"

This notion has fueled countless self-help and get-rich programs across the Western world. But language experts and 1.3 billion Chinese people understand that the saying, like many other cultural myths, is not quite true.

As I flew to Shenzhen recently to launch the Chinese-language version of The Tobacco Atlas, Third Edition at the World Cancer Congress, two thoughts came to mind: how readily we sometimes subscribe to an idea just because it is popular, and how today's China represents both a great challenge and opportunity for the tobacco control community.

Consider the dispiriting statistics: a country of 300 million smokers with one million tobacco-related deaths annually, where the state controls the world's largest tobacco company.

Yet, I firmly believe, we are too quick to accept what we hear around us: that China is different. That the economy and government are too heavily invested in the status quo. That smoking is an entrenched cultural habit, and motivations and incentives to change are inadequate. And so on.

China, as my colleague Dr. Judith Mackay likes to say, is not different. Yes, it is bigger, which brings unique circumstances and challenges. But like every other country, China is faced with the devastating consequences—both human and economic—of failing to reduce tobacco usage. And it is the same damaging product, and the same actions that need to be taken, as anywhere else in the world.

And so, as I arrived in a city that has grown from 30,000 to 3 million people in less than 30 years, I felt not only that change is possible, but that it is happening now.

That a major global cancer conference held in China would afford such a prominent platform to tobacco control—this would not have occurred ten years ago—was bright news in itself. What impressed me even more was the scene at our press conference: a packed room full of journalists, researchers and advocates—from China and around the world. A direct and open dialogue with wide participation and challenging questions took place, showing proof of great interest from a strong community focused on the health of its country.

China's ratification of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005 was a watershed moment. Much of the public health world waited to see what would unfold next.

Peter Baldini, Chief Executive Officer (right), with Dr. Judith Mackay, Senior Advisor, at The Tobacco Atlas, Third Edition press conference.

Five years later, here is what I saw in Shenzhen: a movement taking shape with energy, pushing for change. The belief that meaningful progress can happen is no longer just a belief. The air is filled with positive, productive talk—some leading to real action.

Implementation of smoke-free environments, though uneven, is continuing; fears that all such efforts would stop after the 2008 Olympics have not been realized. Frank and direct media campaigns are appearing in several cities. Public discussion about the critical importance of reducing tobacco use is accelerating, and is engaging more sectors and groups than ever. The Bloomberg Initiative and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have provided meaningful funding, and are welcomed as partners. New tools provided by international organizations, like the Chinese-language Tobacco Atlas that WLF developed with American Cancer Society, are providing knowledge to support researchers and advocates toward taking firm actions.

Still, let's not get giddy. We know the road ahead is long. This is a country where more than half of adult men use tobacco, and where less than half of all adults have noticed anti-smoking messages on radio or television.

WLF has helped to dedicate major resources to addressing the tobacco crisis in China: an advertising campaign to challenge the custom of giving cigarettes as gifts, a US$3 million grant to create seven smoke-free cities, training in international tobacco control best practices for government servants and NGO advocates, and more. Faced with the daunting challenge, these efforts seem small, but we are reminded of another saying in China that rings true: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

China, whose swift progress in so many other fields has amazed the world, has clearly taken the early steps toward a healthier population. We owe it to our colleagues there to encourage and support them fully. In return, their successes in reducing tobacco use will remind the world that change is possible everywhere.
World Lung Foundation
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