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Ahead of World Expo, China Acts to Promote Smoking Controls

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Thirty-two-year-old Sun Ling is not a heavy smoker. But for 10 years, Sun, a civil servant in Shanghai and a father of a 5-year-old, has become used to indulging himself with one or two cigarettes after lunch at work.

However, within one year he might have to find a new after-meal habit, and maybe a healthier one, too..

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which China signed in 2003 and ratified in 2005, the country will ban all types of tobacco advertising and promotion by 2011 in accordance with the FCTC.

Further, smoking in all indoor work places and public areas, as well as public transportation vehicles, will also be banned.

With just one year to go, and less than three months ahead of what authorities promised would be a smoke-free Shanghai World Expo, the Chinese government is fast tracking smoking control, even at this year's annual parliamentary and advisory sessions.

Health Minister Chen Zhu said on March 3, the opening day of the annual session of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), that legislation for smoking control in public areas was currently being enacted in China.

Vice Health Minister Huang Jiefu also vowed on March 5, when the annual meeting of the National People's Congress kicked off, that China's smoking control progress would see a "giant leap forward" after the parliament session, which is expected to end on March 14.

A dozen political advisors even submitted a proposal to the CPPCC National Committee calling for a "smoke-free" session.

"The Chinese government's commitments are surely good news for the country's smoking control progress," said longtime anti-smoking activist Gregory Yingnien Tsang.

The 77-year-old American Chinese has been advocating a smoking ban in public areas in China for the past 18 years.

"As long as the government sticks to its commitments and speeds up fulfillment of those commitments, the current situation of lax implementation of smoking control regulations in public areas, and people's reluctance to quit smoking, will soon be resolved," he said.

One of the world's largest tobacco producing and consuming nations, China manufactures about 100 billion packets of cigarettes each year. The country now has a smoking population of 350 million, about one-third of the world's total.

Each year, about one million Chinese die from lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases that can be directly linked to tobacco use, according to statistics from the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control (CATC).

"The top priority here is to adopt an anti-smoking law that bans smoking in public areas, and make sure it is fully implemented," Tsang said.

Such a law is key to helping prevent teenagers from picking up smoking, reducing the harm of passive smoking, and encouraging people to quit smoking, he said.

However, such an anti-smoking law would inevitably affect the tobacco industry, which has long been considered a major source of government tax revenues.

Li Yizhong, minister of industry and information technology, said in January China's tobacco industry generated 59.4 billion yuan (about US$8.7 billion) in taxes in 2009.

Also, the tobacco industry made positive contributions to China's V-shaped economic recovery last year, according to Li.

But Tsang said tax gains from the tobacco industry were far less than what China lost in deaths and medical expenses related to smoking.

The Ministry of Health estimated in 2007 that about 540 million Chinese were exposed to secondhand smoking, and annually about 100,000 deaths were related to smoking.

He said printing health warnings is the cheapest and most effective way for promoting smoking controls.

According to the FCTC, adverse results from smoking must be clearly stated on cigarette and tobacco packets, and health warnings in words and pictures should take up no less than 30 percent of the package area.

But Wu Yiqun, vice executive director with the Beijing-based Thinktank Research Center for Health Development, said earlier this year China's tobacco industry supervisory administration had failed to oversee Chinese tobacco producers in this aspect.

"Words on packets in China hardly have any warning effect," Wu said, "The words are small and some are even in English, and many Chinese smokers don't understand them," she said.

Tsang said he is currently working with the Beijing municipal health bureau on a five-year campaign named "one million smoke-free families" to encourage smokers to refrain from smoking at home or with their friends.

Shanghai, now busy in preparation for the upcoming World Expo, is also promoting smoke controls in public areas.

On March 1, Shanghai implemented a regulation to ban smoking in 12 types of public places, including schools, hospitals, sports stadiums, public transport vehicles and Internet cafes, to prevent widespread passive smoking.

The city also turned down a 200-million-yuan sponsorship deal for the 2010 World Expo from a tobacco company in July last year.

"I guess I would smoke less as there would be fewer and fewer places allowing people to smoke, or maybe I would just quit smoking," Sun Ling said.

(Xinhua News Agency March 11, 2010)

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