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 ‘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
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