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WHO Anti-Smoking Guidelines Could Prevent 13 Million Deaths in China

A man smokes in front of a "no smoking" sign outside a shopping mall in Shanghai, Jan. 10, 2014.
A man smokes in front of a "no smoking" sign outside a shopping mall in Shanghai, Jan. 10, 2014.
Jessica Berman
More than 13 million deaths could be prevented in China over the next 40 years if the country fully implements global anti-smoking measures. Beijing has not taken many steps, however, to improve tobacco control.

China signed onto the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003, but it has only half-heartedly enforced the world body's strict recommendations to curtail smoking. Experts say that following the guidelines could cut smoking rates 40 percent by the year 2050. Without stronger measures, they estimate 50 million tobacco-related deaths could occur in China over that time.

The authors of a new study based their predictions on a computer model called SimSmoke.  

David Levy of Georgetown University’s Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington said China, the world’s most populous nation, accounts for about one-third of the world's cigarette smokers. More than half the men in China smoke.  

Levy said people often take up the deadly habit unaware of the long-term health consequences. “Smoking, you know, once it gets established and in many of the low- and middle income countries, you know there’s kind of a prestige initially to smoking,” he said.

The WHO convention calls for anti-smoking campaigns and bans on smoking in all public places. To discourage smoking, it also calls for health warnings on cigarette packages, programs to help people kick the habit and stiff tobacco taxes.  Experts say a 75 percent increase on cigarette taxes would save about 3.5 million lives, and a marketing ban would save about another 2 million.

Since signing the convention, the Chinese imposed a 12-percent tax on cigarettes, but the higher price was not passed on to consumers.

Teh-we Hu, a professor of public policy economics at the University of California Berkeley, is co-author of the study published in the British Medical Journal.

Hu is optimistic that cultural and social norms in China are changing. He noted that President Hu Jintao is advocating the adoption of a ban on smoking in public and bestowing cigarettes as gifts to officials and employers.

“So, that’s the promising part of it. But we have yet to see whether legislation will be implemented, will be compliant [with], whether there’s a penalty on it just like we do in the U.S. or in Hong Kong [or] in Taiwan or in other countries,” he said.

Hu concedes the most effective anti-smoking measure, a major increase in the cigarette tax, is probably a long way off.

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