Second-hand smoke a 'killer at large'

By Hu Yinan (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-05-30 07:05

As many as 540 million Chinese are exposed to second-hand smoke (SHS), of which 180 million are under the age of 15, says a national tobacco control report released yesterday.

Women and children are most vulnerable to SHS with the smoking rate among men reaching 57 percent. What's worse, a whopping 90 percent of the women are exposed to SHS at home.

The number of smokers in China has reached about 350 million, the highest in the world. And about 100,000 of the 1 million Chinese who die due to smoking-related diseases each year are passive smokers, says the report.

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Prepared by the Ministry of Health (MOH), the report was presented at a tobacco control conference in Beijing two days before this year's World No-Tobacco Day, whose theme is to create a smoke-free environment.

This is the second annual report released by the country under the guidelines of the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which was adopted by the 56th World Health Assembly in May 2003.

China signed the Convention in November 2003 and approved it in August 2005. The FCTC officially came into force on January 9, 2006.

There is no safe level of exposure to SHS, said Yang Gonghuan, deputy director of China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a top expert on smoking control.

"That's why legislation is so important for creating a smoke-free environment," said Jiang Yuan, a researcher with CDC's tobacco control office.

Susan V. Lawrence, regional head of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a US-based non-profit organization, agrees. Creating smoke-free zones cannot save those who suffer because of SHS, nor can it build a truly smoke-free environment for all.

With the public becoming increasingly aware of the problem, Chinese leaders are now thinking of creating a totally smoke-free environment, a view widely shared by the world community, Lawrence said.

Beijing has been in the forefront of the fight against smoking. This time too it has made a promise: to make the 2008 Olympics a "smoke-free Games". In late April, the municipal government issued a notice, ordering all Olympic-designated restaurants and seven other public places to be made smoke-free zones. It urged all restaurants to follow the example.

But given the huge number of smokers the capital has, the municipal government has allowed the restaurants to have smoking areas.

Later next month, the FCTC will hold a series of discussions on how to more specifically address the problem of tobacco control. An FCTC revised principle states: "Effective measures to provide protection from exposure to tobacco smoke require the total elimination of smoking and tobacco smoke in a particular space or environment in order to create a 100 percent smoke-free environment."

But despite the government's recent initiatives, China still faces challenges, especially in ensuring that women and minors are safe from SHS.

A recent study covering about 130 neighborhoods in Beijing's Dongcheng district found tobacco vendors within walking distance of 98 percent of primary and middle schools, said Feng Ailan, an expert with the Teenage Tobacco Control Committee of China Tobacco Control Association.

There is not one, but six tobacco vendors "just across" the street from a foreign language primary school near the MOH, said Damon Moglen, vice-president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The government's smoke-control schemes have seen "smart" responses from domestic tobacco companies. Zhonghua, for example, carries different warning labels for packs sold in China and Australia. The strong graphic warning labels on Zhonghua packets sold in Australia are much bigger than those available in China. This prompted Lawrence to say: Does this mean the tobacco company "cares more about Australians?"

From January 2009, it will become mandatory for all Chinese tobacco firms to adhere to FCTC regulations that say warning labels have to be at least one-third of the size of a cigarette packet.

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