CHINA: THE CHALLENGE AND THE OPPORTUNITY
Chief Executive Officer
You've probably heard this one before: "The
Chinese expression for ‘crisis' is a
combination of the words ‘danger' and
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
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
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
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.
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.