China’s smokers ignore the dangers

An estimated 316 million people smoke in China, almost a quarter of the population.

Most smokers in China, the world’s largest tobacco consumer, have no intention of kicking the habit and remain unaware of some of its most damaging health effects, Chinese health officials and outside researchers said yesterday.

An estimated 316 million people smoke in China, almost a quarter of the population, and concerns are growing about the long-term effects on public health and the economy.

The vast majority of smokers are men, of whom 59 percent told researchers that they have no plans to quit, according to a decadelong study by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Canadian researchers with the International Tobacco Control project.

Such numbers have prompted efforts to restrict the formerly ubiquitous practice.

Major cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, having recently moved to ban smoking in public places, with Shanghai’s prohibition going into effect in March.

In 2015, the central government approved a modest nationwide increase in the tax on cigarettes.

However, both Chinese and international health officials argue that more is needed, including a nationwide public smoking ban, higher cigarette taxes and more aggressive warnings about the danger to health.

Such actions are “critically important,” Yuan Jiang, director of tobacco control for the Chinese Center for Disease Control, said in a statement released with the study.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A man smokes at a designated smoking area near People's Sqaure. 

A public smoking ban had appeared imminent last year. The health ministry said in December that it would happen by the end of 2016, but that has yet to materialize.

“They have to figure out what’s important as a health policy,” said Geoffrey Fong of Canada’s University of Waterloo, one of the authors of the study.

“Every third man that you pass on the street in China will die of cigarettes ... When you have cheap cigarettes, people will smoke them.”

In line with trends across the globe, smoking rates among Chinese have fallen slowly over the past 25 years, by about 1 percent annually among men and 2.6 percent among women, according to a separate study published in April in the medical journal The Lancet.

Yet because of China’s population growth — 1.37 billion people at last count — the actual number of smokers has continued to increase. Growing prosperity means that cigarettes have become more affordable, while low taxes keep the cost of some brands at less than US$1 a pack.

According to yesterday’s study, some 60 percent of Chinese smokers were unaware that cigarettes could lead to strokes and almost 40 percent weren’t aware that smoking can cause heart disease.

Judith Mackay, an anti-tobacco advocate based in Hong Kong, said China has made strides with the public smoking bans in some cities and a similar ban covering schools and universities, but that was not enough.

“This is the first time there has been a report looking at the overall picture of where China stands,” said Mackay, senior adviser at Vital Strategies, a global health organization. “The reality is, it’s falling behind.”

Government agencies and research institutes in China, Canada and the United States funded the study.

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