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China's business leaders take on tobacco

By Bernhard Schwartlander | | Updated: 2017-05-30 14:46

Tobacco is the only commercially available product that, when used as designed, kills up to half of its users. In China that means a third of young Chinese men alive today will eventually be killed by tobacco use.

If smoking rates don't change, 200 million lives in China this century will be claimed by tobacco use. So far, the considerable efforts by tobacco control advocates in China have been thwarted by one simple argument. The tobacco industry, state-owned, contributes too much revenue for smoking to be reduced, they say.

Tobacco makes so much money, they say. China simply can't afford to turn its back on tobacco, they say. We reject this deeply cynical argument that justifies the death of a citizen – or in this case, millions of citizens – based on the revenue of a company or tax receipts. And we're not alone.

China's businesses are leading the way, creating a movement of corporate leaders who have committed to smoke-free workplaces.

Today, Baidu Inc., one of the largest Internet companies in the world founded and headed by Robin Li, joins the WHO in encouraging China's corporate community to offer employees 100 percent smoke-free workplaces. Baidu committed to smoke-free office environments in 2011 and since that time all of Baidu's 17 offices, labs and research centers located in China and around the world are 100 percent smoke-free workplaces. This commitment protects 40,000 employees and countless visitors to these offices from exposure to harmful second-hand smoke. Further, Baidu has agreed to work with WHO to strengthen employee health education programmes with linkages to tobacco cessation programmes to help employees quit smoking.

Building on that commitment, Baidu and WHO have agreed to launch a China smoke-free corporate challenge campaign to encourage Chinese companies to commit to 100 percent smoke-free workplaces.

The campaign's goal will be to secure corporate commitments that protect employees across China from second-hand smoke at the workplace.

Additional corporate leaders are already making the move to smoke-free workplaces.

Today the dominant shared car service, Didi, announced that its sedan service is going entirely smoke-free, ensuring both drivers and passengers are free from the toxic dangers of second-hand smoke. Similarly, in Hangzhou, the Zhejiang Chamber of Commerce publicly called on all its member companies to adopt and enforce 100 percent smoke-free workplaces, conduct smoke-free education for their employees, and to support municipal and provincial efforts to ban smoking in all public indoor spaces.

Smart businesses – innovative businesses that represent China's future – increasingly understand that removing smoking from the workplace is good for business. It protects employees from the harms of tobacco smoke in the workplace. It encourages healthier lifestyles of employees and their families. It reduces health care costs, cuts down on employee absence and increases worker productivity.

These announcements – from major businesses and innovators in China – reflect the reality that smokers and non-smokers alike have the right to clean indoor air. And that this can be easily accommodated by simply requiring that smokers step outside to smoke.

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has embarked on a new path of innovation-driven development. Ultimately, China's new economy will be built by those businesses and leaders who relentlessly pursue policies that benefit employees, businesses and the country. By adopting smoke-free policies, businesses in China offer a window into the nation's future.

And that is worth celebrating.

Bernhard Schwartlander is World Health Organization Representative in China

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