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High time to stub out tobacco across the country

Bernhard Schwartlander
Updated: Mar 7,2015 3:43 PM     China Daily

As thousands of delegates converge on Beijing for the annual meetings of China’s National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee this week, health is likely to feature prominently in the discussions. There are few issues that are more important to the national political agenda than the health of China’s 1.36 billion people. Without health, nothing else matters.

Good health is important for individuals to live long and happy lives. This is a goal which every society aspires to for all of its citizens. Good health also means a productive workforce and a strong economy. A healthy economy is a strong economy.

This year, we hope to see NPC and CPPCC National Committee members tackle the need to break China’s deadly addiction to tobacco.

China is the largest tobacco producer and consumer in the world. Nearly one-third of the world’s 1 billion smokers are Chinese men. Every minute, two people in China die as a result of an illness caused by tobacco smoking. The very high rates of tobacco smoking in China, especially among men, are not consistent with the aspiration for all Chinese people to live long and happy lives. The scientific and health evidence is unequivocal. If you smoke, you will most likely die an early, and probably very painful, death.

The good news, though, is that there is a suite of policy measures which have proved effective in reducing tobacco use around the world. These policies are contained in the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control — the world’s first health treaty. They include making all indoor public places smoke-free; warning people about the dangers of smoking tobacco — both through mass media campaigns and large, graphic warnings on tobacco packs; enacting and enforcing comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; offering cessation support to smokers to quit; and increasing taxes in order to raise prices on tobacco products to make smoking less affordable, especially to young people. 2015 is the 10th anniversary of the convention coming into force, as well as the 10th anniversary of China ratifying the treaty. However, not enough progress has been made in China on implementing it.

There is strong evidence from around the world that implementing the measures included in the convention can have a massive effect on reducing tobacco use. Since a tobacco control law containing many of these policies first came into effect in Russia in 2013, the number of smokers in Russia, a country with an even higher smoking prevalence rate than China, is reported to have dropped by as much as 17 percent in just one year.

We at WHO have been greatly encouraged to see progress on some of these policy areas in China over the last year. A draft national regulation to ban smoking in all indoor and some outdoor public places, and requiring stronger warning labels on tobacco products, is undergoing deliberation at the State Council. The NPC Standing Committee is currently considering amendments to the national Advertising Law to strengthen restrictions on tobacco advertising.

Now, strong political commitment is needed, along with steely determination to stare down interference from the vested interests of the tobacco industry. This will translate the promise of progress into strong, well-enforced tobacco control policies which save lives.

I hope to see political leaders from across the country discussing how they can work together to achieve this during the two national sessions this week.

During last year’s NPC meeting, Premier Li Keqiang famously declared a “war on air pollution” — to the Chinese government’s great credit, as air pollution is a well-documented and very serious threat to health in China. Our hope is that 2015 will be the year China declares war on the tobacco epidemic.