China sees huge market potential in smoking cessation

Updated: 2011-05-27 21:12
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BEIJING - Beijing resident Li Xinhua recently walked into a smoking cessation clinic in the city's Chaoyang Hospital. Compared to other outpatient clinics, which often have long lines waiting outside, the smoking cessation clinic was not very busy at all.

"I often cough up blood, and doctors said I had bronchiectasis, so I wanted to quit smoking," the 56-year-old man said.

Li said that he started smoking when he was 15 years old and has tried to kick the habit at least ten different times without success.

"In 2009, I managed to avoid smoking for a whole year, but I regained the addiction after smoking just a single cigarette," Li said.

According to the 2011 China Tobacco Control Report released on Thursday, China has more than 300 million smokers. If all of these smokers began seeking professional help in their struggle to quit smoking, China could find itself with a burgeoning new market, according to Xiao Dan, director of the hospital's smoking cessation clinic.

Chaoyang Hospital is Beijing's first hospital to have its own smoking cessation clinic. The clinic's four full-time doctors treat about 1,000 patients annually.

According to Xiao, there were only one or two patients coming in each week when the clinic opened in 1996. The number of patients has increased gradually since then.

"Since May 1, when the national indoor smoking ban took effect, more and more smokers have decided to try to quit smoking," said Xiao.

Drug stores across China have seen smoking cessation aids fly off of their shelves since the ban was enacted.

"Nicotine patches are our most popular cessation aid," said a salesperson at a pharmacy in Beijing's Chaoyang district.

On, China's largest online retailer, electronic cigarettes are some of the most popular smoking cessation products available. Prices for the e-cigarettes ranging from less than 100 yuan ($15.4) to 500 yuan. More than 56,000 e-cigarettes have been sold through the site, according to sales figures.

Other popular smoking cessation aids include toothpaste, cigarette holders and Chinese medicines. However, since these products have not been scientifically proven to be effective and are not regulated by the government, smokers are advised not to buy them, Xiao said.

Foreign pharmaceutical companies are now seeing China as a major target for their latest smoking cessation medications.

"Large pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Novartis make significant profits on smoking cessation medications sold in countries like the United States and Canada, but it may take a long time for them to develop the Chinese market before they can recover their costs," Xiao said.

Zhi Xiuyi, a physician at Beijing's Xuanwu Hospital, said that imported smoking cessation medication often costs more than 2,000 yuan for a full round of treatment and is not covered by medical insurance.

"Smokers may think, 'how many cigarettes could I buy with the money I'm spending on this medication?' and give up the idea of quitting," said Zhi.

The Chinese government included smoking bans for public places in its  12th Five-year Plan, and a national regulation banning indoor smoking took effect on May 1.

It is believed that these government initiatives will help to stimulate the growing smoking cessation market.

Venturepharm, a domestic pharmaceudical company, is the only Chinese company producing smoking cessation medication. However, the company has yet to realize profits from sales of the medication.

"Although we haven't made any profits from our medication, we are confident that we eventually will. The government's policies and the public's increasing health awareness are positive signs," said Liu Wenqi, the company's sales manager.

Hu Angang, a professor of public administration at Tsinghua University, suggested that community hospitals should have professional doctors and nurses available to help smokers quit smoking and give them relevant guidance and advice.