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Promotion of e-cigarettes should stop

By Shan Juan (China Daily) Updated: 2014-09-03 09:11

Roughly a week after the World Health Organization issued a report calling for enhanced regulation over "electronic cigarette", the tobacco lobby in China is still making efforts to cash in on the profitable product. The WHO report says that there is lack of scientific evidence to prove that e-cigarettes are safe, and there is fear they could lead to nicotine addiction and tobacco smoking.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees the tobacco industry, is organizing an e-cigarette conference in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong province, from Tuesday to Thursday. But instead of recommending greater control over the tobacco market in response to WHO's concerns, the conference will focus on how to help the industry cash in the $3-billion global e-cigarette market.

Reports say China makes at least 70 percent of the e-cigarettes in the world. No wonder, China Tobacco tried to use the conference to boost the e-cigarette market in China, the world's largest producer and consumer of tobacco. Also, authorities are reportedly considering establishing a State monopoly over e-cigarettes, something that China Tobacco enjoys in the tobacco industry.

With more Chinese people beginning to realize the harms of smoking and the government imposing more controls on the tobacco market, the industry is investing heavily in research and development programs to find substitutes for tobacco cigarettes to keep their cash registers rolling. And nothing fits the bill like e-cigarettes.

Worldwide, major tobacco companies are locked in a tough competition to control, or at least get a big share of, the e-cigarette market. To lure young consumers, they also have added several flavors and even vitamins to e-cigarettes, according to Gan Quan, China director of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.

A search on "electronic cigarette" on China Tobacco's official website showed that Zhengzhou Tobacco Research Institute, the State monopoly corporation's subsidiary, got a patent for "a kind of smokeless electronic cigarette" in 2008. Interestingly, controversial "tobacco academic" Xie Jianping is the institute's deputy director. Xie was elected as a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering in December 2011 for his research into "low tar, less harmful" tobacco, which drew loud protests from tobacco control experts and activists.

E-cigarettes first appeared in China in 2003 and they are now widely available across the world, especially over the Internet. In the past five years or so, they have become quite popular in the United States and Europe. A recent study by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that e-cigarette experimentation and recent use doubled among US middle- and high-school students in 2011-12, with their number reaching about 1.78 million. This has raised serious concern because the overall impact of e-cigarette use on public health remains uncertain.

In China, e-cigarettes are yet to catch the fancy of people eager to quit smoking, but access into buying it particularly online is unlimited. To attract more buyers, China Tobacco is said to launch its own new line of e-cigarettes in partnership with another company.

Seemingly, the tobacco industry is trying to expand its market. But can its designs be thwarted at a time when tobacco control efforts in China are still found wanting? Globally, WHO has been making efforts to strengthen regulation over e-cigarettes. In fact, its latest report on "electronic nicotine delivery systems" will be discussed at the 6th Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in Moscow in October.

China's top legislature ratified FCTC in 2005, but it still hasn't passed a law to make it mandatory for tobacco companies to print repulsive graphic images on cigarette packets as health warnings and ban all forms of tobacco advertisements. A national legislation on tobacco/smoking control is under way, but it would be good if legislators also took into consideration e-cigarettes and their potential impact on human health before finalizing the draft.

There is no alternative to banning all forms of tobacco if the government wants to protect the people, especially youths, from the harms of smoking and possibly e-cigarettes.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.

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