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China Caught in Tobacco Dilemma


Health experts say tobacco consumption is hitting alarming rates in China. World health officials estimate that one-third of the male population under the age of 29 is likely to die from tobacco-related illnesses. But officials in the communist government have said the country - the world's largest producer and consumer of tobacco products - cannot afford to stop smoking. VOA's Luis Ramirez has more from Beijing.

A bride at a wedding in Beijing goes from table to table, offering cigarettes to her guests - a long-standing tradition.

Smoking is an integral part of Chinese social life, and refusing a cigarette can be seen as impolite.

Unlike their parents, who grew up in an era when cigarettes were expensive and rationed, younger adults have money to buy them and hundreds of brands to choose from. Smoking rates, especially among young people, are rising.

Wei Peng is a 23-year-old university student in Beijing who has been chain smoking since he was 16.

"When I first started to smoke, I did it out of curiosity. Then, it made me feel like I was growing up, and made me feel like a man. It gradually became a habit."

Wei is among the millions of young male smokers at risk of dying of tobacco-related diseases, which the World Health Organization warns are likely to kill a third of all Chinese men now under the age of 29.

While most developed and many developing countries are trying to phase out smoking, critics say China is slow to curb its use. They say few in the country ever learn of tobacco's dangers.

Doctor Xiao Dan with the Beijing Institute of Respiratory Medicine works at Beijing's Chaoyang Hospital to help smokers quit. She says many patients diagnosed with lung cancer are surprised to learn about its link to smoking.

"Many of them know that smoking is not good, but they do not know exactly how bad it could be for their health. They do not know how smoking affects their health and their lives. They have no understanding."

In China, anti-tobacco efforts compete with economic interests. It is a tough dilemma because the same government that would have to enforce curbs on tobacco use also is the country's biggest tobacco producer. The communist government draws billions of dollars in revenues from cigarette sales among China's 350 million smokers.

State-owned cigarette companies like the giant Hongta Group, in southwestern China's Yunnan province, generate thousands of jobs. Hongta has branched out to numerous ventures across China, and its money has paid for highways, hotels, and even a massive state-of-the art sports center in the provincial capital of Kunming.

Communist Party leaders have openly said the country cannot afford to stop smoking. The deputy chief of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration told parliament in March that curbs on smoking could destabilize the country.

Some in China are working to change that thinking.

Two experts in health economics, Mao Zhengzhong and Hu Teh-wei did a study that showed curbing tobacco use by raising cigarette taxes would not lead to lost revenue or instability. Mao, a professor at West China University of Medical Sciences, says the government will need more convincing.

"We have to offer them more proof that to allay their concerns about falling revenues if taxes on tobacco go up."

Hu, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says the country's leaders are not paying attention to the human costs of smoking in the long-term - which currently costs China five billion dollars a year.

"One is the expenditures, the medical expenditures that increase because of smoking. The other is because of premature death, or lost productivity," Hu says.

For now, a small notice on the cigarette label is one of the few warnings that Chinese smokers get about tobacco. It says smoking too much is bad for health.

But China is taking some steps toward curbing smoking. The government has ratified the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which prohibits tobacco advertising, requires large warnings on cigarette packs, and bans smoking in many public places.

The WHO representative in China, Dr. Henk Bekedam, calls ratification an important step.

"That's very encouraging, but it's just like with all the laws. A law on its own is not enough. It's, at the end of the day, about changing behavior," Dr. Bekedam says.

Smoking related illnesses kill more than one million Chinese each year and experts say, without a change in national behavior, that number could more than double by 2020.