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Nation should put health before profits

Updated: 2012-04-10 14:19

By Cai Hong (China Daily)

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According to the Ministry of Finance, in the first two months of this year the profits of China's State-owned enterprises were down 10.9 percent year-on-year. But one industry at least bucked this trend, as the profits of the tobacco industry soared by more than 20 percent.

However, the phenomenal profits of the tobacco industry are not good news for this country.

Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, has described the tobacco industry as a "ruthless and devious enemy" and urged governments and civil society groups to unite against tobacco companies.

But in China this ruthless and devious enemy is fighting back. It has developed "Chinese-style" cigarettes that combine medicinal herbs with tobacco, which the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA) and the China National Tobacco Corporation claim are healthier than regular ones.

When science and technology becomes the tool of such a moneymaking machine, things can only get ugly.

The technology that produces these "improved" cigarettes has been in use since 2003, but it has now been nominated for the 2012 State Scientific and Technological Progress Award, the country's Nobel Prize.

One achievement the STMA claims is the fragrant additives that it believes will improve the taste of their cigarettes.

By accepting this nomination the Ministry of Science and Technology is defiling the law and allowing the tobacco administration to mislead the public.

The technology should not be acceptable as the 29th clause of the Law on National Scientific and Technological Progress bans any research activity that could harm national security, social benefits, health and morality.

Since the tobacco administration published its guidelines on developing the tobacco industry in 2004, these Chinese-style herbal cigarettes have become the destination for the industry and 10 cigarette manufacturers now produce such cigarettes, claiming that herbal additives can reduce the hazards of smoking.

Yet their herbal cigarettes contravene the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which China has ratified, as the framework convention bans or limits additives to tobacco products.

In less than a decade these Chinese-style cigarettes have won many converts because they are promoted as being a healthier alternative.

Yet a 2009 survey of herbal cigarette smokers in China found that these cigarettes are just as addictive and no safer than conventional cigarettes. The researchers found no significant difference in the intake of nicotine and carcinogens and that these cigarettes might in fact be more harmful, because those who had switched to the herbal cigarettes admitted they smoked more cigarettes per day.

The tobacco industry disputes such findings and distorts, minimizes or simply ignores the unfolding evidence against it.

The cigarette companies are aided in this endeavor by the fact that tobacco is the only agricultural product to be taxed at the sub-national level. This creates an incentive for local governments to encourage tobacco growing.

Yet the government is ignoring the other side of the balance sheet, which shows that the annual cost of smoking-related diseases to the country's health system is huge.

Tobacco use, along with high salt intake, is one of the most preventable causes of non-communicable diseases in China. And the more people who smoke the greater the strain on the health system, as more people need hospital admission.

Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, Minister of Health Chen Zhu said, "Rapid progress in tobacco control will require political leadership at the highest level, not just by China's Ministry of Health."

Encouragingly in this regard, the country's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) mentions tobacco control for the first time, calling for smoke-free public places. Its aim is to help its population to extend their life expectancy by one year during the next five years.

However, such a goal will be unattainable if the government continues to let the tobacco industry kidnap it.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily. E-mail: