CHINA> National
Cigarettes: Gift of death to family, with love
(China Daily)
Updated: 2009-01-31 10:00

Li Pingping, a Shanghai resident, is well aware of the harmful affects of smoking. She still thought two cartons of cigarette packs were the best gift to give to her father for the New Year.

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"When you have to pick up gifts for elders during festivals or occasions, cigarettes are a safe choice," she said before boarding a three-hour flight to her hometown Chongqing, situated in Southwest China.

It's almost like a tradition in China to give away cigarette packets as gifts to friends and relatives as a sign of respect and love. The practice has for long stood in the way of the government's efforts to curb the killer habit.

According to government statistics, about 350 million people in China smoke and 1 million die of smoking related diseases in the country every year.

Xu Guihua, deputy director of Chinese Association on Tobacco Control), said "the lack of support and understanding among people" had made their job to discourage smoking extremely difficult.

Li said though her father was the only one in the family of four who smoked, no one had a problem if he lit up in front of them. "We have guests who are chain smokers visiting all the time. We're used to the smoke," she said.

"If I wanted to give a gift to elders, I would always buy cigarettes. If they quit smoking, they can always pass them on to their friends. It is a practical gift and, most often, they like it."

The anti-smoking lobby in the country is well aware that getting the Chinese to kick the butt is not going to be an easy task.

Yang Gonghuan, director of the National Tobacco Control Office, has called for more "effective publicity" to make people aware of the hazards of smoking.

Just days ahead of Spring Festival, the Ministry of Health (MOH), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention together launched a program to distribute 200,000 anti-smoking posters across the country.

"You have sent your friends both blessings and respiratory problems such as lung caner; you have sent your colleagues both respect and cardio vascular diseases such as heart disorders and strokes; you have sent your family love, care and death," reads one of the posters.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as individuals are also joining the fight against advertising campaigns that promote smoking.

Wu Yiqun, deputy director of the Thinktank Research Center for Health Development, a Beijing-based NGO, often asks anti-smoking experts to write letters to health authorities demanding that they launch effective measure to curb the habit.

His proposals include banning tobacco companies' sponsorship in Shanghai's Formula One, censoring smoking scenes in the popular TV series Shanghai Grand, accentuating warning signs on cigarette packs and dissuading tobacco companies from attending quake relief charity awards.

According to MOH's annual smoking control report, the number of young smokers is on the rise.

The number of young smokers aged from 13 to 18 has hit 130 million in China, the report said.