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How Can China Do Better in the Global Fight against Tobacco? A Chinese Citizen’s Perspective.

Monday, June 25, 2012

As a Chinese citizen and a World Lung Foundation consultant, I was very pleased to be able to participate in the 15th World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH) in Singapore on March 20th-24th. It was one of the most memorable and encouraging conferences that I have ever experienced as a tobacco control advocate working in China.

Highlight One was an extremely exciting speech made by Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, at the opening of the Conference. Addressing the WCTOH’s theme—Galvanizing Global Action towards a Tobacco-Free World—Dr Chan said: “Unfortunately, this is where the balance no longer tips so strongly in our favor. The enemy, the tobacco industry, has changed its face and its tactics. The wolf is no longer in sheep’s clothing, and its teeth are bared. Tactics aimed at undermining anti-tobacco campaigns and subverting the Framework Convention, are no longer covert or cloaked by an image of corporate social responsibility. They are out in the open and they are extremely aggressive. In some countries, the tobacco industry is pushing for joint government-industry committees to vet or screen all policy and legislative matters pertaining to tobacco control. Don’t fall into this trap. Doing so is just like appointing a committee of foxes to look after your chickens.” At the end, she appealed to the audience, “We can, and must, stop this industry’s massive contribution to sickness and death dead in its tracks.”

Dr. Margaret Chan’s remarks reminded me of similar tactics implemented by tobacco companies in China. In 2011, Xie Jianping, the deputy director of China National Tobacco Corporation's Tobacco Research Institute, was awarded the honorary lifetime title of Academician for his work on low-tar cigarettes. In 2012, a Big Tobacco-funded research project was nominated for the 2012 National Science and Technology Progress Award. Though China's scientific community and tobacco control organizations have protested these actions (which give tobacco companies false legitimacy and authority) they have been fighting an uphill battle against a strong enemy – Chinese tobacco monopolies.

Highlight Two was the great tobacco control commitments that I saw Chinese delegates make at the conference—from both government sources (including the Chinese Ministry of Health and Center for Disease Control) and NGOs.

It was obvious to conference participants that China has begun to actively take action in the fight for tobacco control. This progress was encouraging, although many challenges remain, including obstruction by the powerful tobacco industry and a dearth of FCTC implementation in China.

Madam Yang Gonghuan, former Deputy Director of China’s CDC and Director of the National Tobacco Control Office, presented about the progress of tobacco control and smoke free policies in China. The good news is that some cities have passed comprehensive smoke free laws, including Harbin and Tianjin. These laws will take effect on May 31st, 2012: World No Tobacco Day.

In a clear sign of China’s continuing importance in the fight against tobacco, China Ministry of Health’s delegate, Madam Shi Qi, was also invited to launch the WHO Blue Ribbon campaign,  Mobilizing support for 100% smoke free environments in the Western Pacific on March 23rd. At this event, she committed to sparing no effort to push through tobacco control measures in China.

Highlight Three was the launch of The Tobacco Atlas, Fourth Edition. Released by the American Cancer Society and World Lung Foundation on April 23rd ,this volume was warmly welcomed—particularly by Chinese participants.

The Tobacco Atlas is a tool to help civil society and governments take decisive action to reduce the harms of tobacco. The book offers maps and graphics that illustrate the breadth of the tobacco epidemic, economic burden, and predict the future course of the epidemic globally. The Tobacco Atlas demonstrates clearly that tobacco is not just a problem in China, but throughout the world. It also outlines the solutions to this epidemic: often simple steps that we can take to protect people no matter where they live. The most frequently question asked by Chinese participants who came by WLF’s booth was, “When will the Chinese version of The Tobacco Atlas be released?”

China is the world’s leading consumer and producer of tobacco products. According to The Tobacco Atlas and the Global Adult Tobacco Survey, 320 million people in China (including nearly 53 percent of Chinese men) are smokers, accounting for about one- third of smokers worldwide. The country consumes more than 37 percent of the world’s cigarettes. There are about 1.6 billion people in China harmed by tobacco, including 740 million people exposed to second hand smoke.

No matter how you look at it, Chinese policy will play a critical role in the global fight against tobacco. After a fascinating couple of days, I left the conference with one question in mind: Looking forward, how could China do even better in the global fight towards a tobacco-free world? It is a question for all of us.

Winnie Chen
Communications Manager, China
World Lung Foundation

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