xi's moments

Time to stub out smoking

By Faisal Kidwai | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2018-11-22 10:36

Non-smoking banners are displayed on the iconic Bird's Nest National Stadium in Beijing,June 1, 2015. [Photo/Xinhua]

A marketing campaign launched by tobacco giant Philip Morris International in more than 50 countries in mid-2000 ran this slogan on posters: Don't be a Maybe. Be Marlboro.

Although the campaign quickly ran into trouble in many European countries, when anti-tobacco organizations accused the company of targeting youngsters by making smoking appear cool and sexy, there continues to be a rise in smokers.

Around the world, nearly 950 million men and 175 million women aged 15 or older smoke, around seven million people die of tobacco-related diseases and 80 percent of smokers live in low- and middle-income countries.

China — the largest producer and consumer of tobacco — has more than 300 million smokers, and 740 million people are exposed to second-hand smoke. Addiction to tobacco takes a heavy financial toll, too. Globally, the total annual economic cost is estimated to be $2 trillion, while in China it is around $58 billion.

Tobacco smoke has over 2,000 chemicals, and about 250 of these are considered harmful to smokers and nonsmokers. Out of these 250 chemicals, at least 69 can cause cancer, with lung cancer being a leading cause of death. Smoking harms just about every organ of the body. As per a study launched by the China Sexology Association and conducted by Peking University Third Hospital published on this website this week, male smokers are more likely to suffer from reproductive problems, such as difficulty conceiving and abnormal sperm. Smokers' sperm is more likely to have abnormalities such as lower count and activity, as well as more deformities, the study said.

To reduce smoking rates, the Chinese government has taken various steps. It has banned tobacco advertisements, raised taxes on tobacco products and banned smoking in public places in many cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. Authorities aim to bring down the smoking rate nationally from 27.7 percent in 2015 to 20 percent by 2030. These measures have already seen success. Three years after the capital city enacted its toughest anti-smoking regulations, the number of adult smokers fell by 200,000 to 3.99 million.

But attitude, customs and tradition are a tough nut to crack, especially when habits have long roots. The first tobacco plant came to China in 1570s from what is today called the Philippines. Cigarettes, meanwhile, made their debut in 1890 when US industrialist James B. Duke began exporting them to China. The first serious attempt to curb tobacco use was undertaken by Emperor Chongzhen of the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644). He not only banned tobacco, but also ordered the execution of anybody found consuming it. Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644-1911) went a step further and announced in 1637 the death penalty for anyone caught in possession of the plant.

While such drastic steps are not needed, it is true some tough measures are required to reduce smoking rates. The government should extend the ban on smoking in public places nationwide and strictly monitor its implementation. This will provide a smoke-free environment to everyone, especially nonsmokers. Second, expand availability of medication and counseling so anybody looking to quit can easily seek help. Third, launch an intensive and hard-hitting campaign that not only makes smoking uncool, but also graphically portrays the health risks. Many experts advocate raising prices of cigarettes, but I believe that's a wrong move as price makes no difference to rich people and only hurts poor people who then are forced to buy cheaper brands, which in turn pose a bigger threat to their health. Raising awareness is better than raising costs.

Weaning people away from this habit might seem daunting, but it is doable. And other countries have shown it can be done. In the United Kingdom, smoking today has fallen to 16 percent from 46 percent four decades ago. Similarly, Greece, France and Denmark all have seen a decline. Overall, more than 62 million smokers quit the habit in high-income nations between 2000 and 2015.

It's high time Chinese began stubbing out their cigarettes, too.

The author is a journalist with more than 18 years experience in media.

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