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[Cartoon by Liang Qiu/ cartoon.chinadaily.com.cn]
China Tobacco (China National Tobacco Corporation), affiliated to the State Tobacco Monopoly, has applied to have its research into supposedly less harmful cigarettes included on a list of initiatives up for the 2012 National Award for Science and Technology. Its application is open to appeals until early May.
Chinese health experts have attacked China Tobacco's potential crowning, saying the recognition would violate the spirit of the award, under which it is clearly stated that research considered should not be against the protection of public health.
But a spokesman for the MST said earlier that new research in the tobacco sector is praiseworthy if it can reduce the harm brought about by smoking.
In an exclusive interview with Xinhua, Dr Michael O'Leary, the WHO's representative in China, said there is substantial risk in research being used to suggest some tobacco products are less harmful than others and therefore may be more safely consumed.
"Such misleading information can be very harmful to public health," according to O'Leary. "There is no safe level of tobacco consumption. The effective way to reduce the harm is to reduce the number of people who smoke or who are exposed to second-hand smoke."
He said attempts to suggest some cigarettes are safer occur in many countries, and are usually part of tobacco industry campaigns to deceive the public and encourage smoking.
China has more than 300 million smokers, about 1.2 million people die from tobacco-related diseases every year in the country, and another 740 million are exposed to second-hand smoke, health experts say. They add that China faces a particularly tough battle to prevent the interference in anti-smoking work of China Tobacco, with its lucrative tax contributions and status as a government agency.
Tobacco research projects have been honored seven times in the annual National Award for Science and Technology over the past decade, the Beijing Times has reported.