'Safe level' of smoking a myth

By Xin Dingding (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-04-01 07:34

More needs to be done to correct the long-standing myth among the Chinese public that low-tar cigarettes are less dangerous than normal ones, health experts warned Monday.

The anti-smoking measures are urgent with Beijing promising a tobacco-free Olympics and banning smoking in most public places starting May 1, tobacco-control advocates said at a seminar in the capital.

They cited a recent survey that found close to 60 percent of respondents believed smokers take in less tar - a carcinogen - from low-tar cigarettes, while 56.83 percent of those polled said that smoking such cigarettes will be safer than puffing on other types.

The survey, by the Beijing-based Think Tank Research Center for Health Development and news portal Sohu.com, polled 1,403 people last month. A majority of those polled were aged 29-50, with 86 percent being smokers.

"The so-called low-tar cigarettes are as harmful as other tobacco products. The trick is in the cigarette design," said Wu Yiqun, the survey designer and director of the research center.

Low-tar cigarettes are defined according to tar levels in cigarette smoke measured by machines, experts said.

Investigations in the United States, where the first "light" cigarette was born, found in 2001 that in order to get lower tar levels, tobacco producers changed the design of cigarettes, such as adding ventilation holes invisible to the naked eye, to dilute the tar in smoke from such cigarettes.

But these measurements do not reflect how much smokers are exposed to the fatal substances emitted by cigarettes, one reason being that smokers just inhale deeper, said Hans Troedsson, the World Health Organization (WHO)'s Chief Representative in China, in a statement in January.

Medical evidence in the past five decades also show that the incidence of lung cancer has not drop from the prevalence of low-tar cigarettes, Zhi Xiuyi, professor and director of Beijing Lung Cancer Center, said.

"Therefore, low-tar cigarettes are invented by tobacco producers to have smokers let down their guard against the harmful effects of tobacco and allure them to continue smoking," Wu said.

Though China's first low-tar cigarette appeared in 1976, more than a decade later than the ones in the US, the low-tar fallacy is spreading fast and wide. Even many doctors believe in the low-tar cigarettes, health experts said.

"This is partly because tobacco producers have kept telling smokers that they are using high-technology to reduce the harm of tar some even print 'herbal' on the package," said Yang Gonghuan, professor and deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

An earlier study by an international tobacco-control program in 2006 has also found that the country ranked top among 14 countries and regions with the highest percentage of wrong ideas about low-tar cigarettes.

There are reportedly 350 million smokers in China. About 1 million people die each year because of smoking-related diseases, such as lung cancer.

According to a WHO forecast, 1 billion people will be dead worldwide within the 21st century because of tobacco - if there is no urgent action taken to remedy the health threat - and the average annual death toll in China from cigarettes will be 3 million, up from the current 1 million.

Faced with such challenges, the government has strengthened efforts to ban smoking by joining the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005 and banning words such as "light" and "mild" on cigarette packages, among other measures.

The country also needs to open more clinics to help smokers kick the habit, said anti-smoking activist Gregory Ying-nien Tsang.

"China is paying more and more attention to controlling smoking. I attended more than a dozen activities last year that promote smoking bans," Zhi added.

"But more needs to be done to let people know that low-tar cigarettes are fatal, too. There is no 'safe level' of smoking," he said.

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