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WHO warns Chinese public of misleading tobacco industry research

BEIJING, Dec. 19 (Xinhua) — Research indicating that some cigarettes are less harmful is tobacco industry hype meant to mislead the public, a World Health Organization official warned on Monday as a heated debate rages in China over the credibility of tobacco science.

“Low-tar cigarettes, for example, don’t reduce the harm at all,” said Sarah England, a technical officer on tobacco control with the WHO Representative Office in China.

She said tar, nicotine and other smoke emission yields derived from smoking-machine testing do not provide valid estimates of human exposure and there is no conclusive epidemiological or scientific evidence that cigarettes with lower machine-generated smoke yields are less harmful.

The debate on tobacco science flared up in China after Xie Jianping, a researcher known for his studies on low-tar cigarettes, was honored with a seat in the elite Chinese Academy of Engineering earlier this month.

Xie’s accreditation was challenged by Chinese health experts, but some scientists and smokers also came out to defend the 52-year-old researcher, who has spent decades working with a tobacco research institute under the China National Tobacco Corporation (China Tobacco) — the world’s largest cigarette company.

Neither Xie nor authorities with the Chinese Academy of Engineering have publicly commented since the controversy heated up.

“The marketing of cigarettes with stated tar and nicotine yields has resulted in the mistaken belief that those cigarettes are less harmful. It is just a tobacco industry tactic. It is very misleading,” England said.

The WHO official compared low-tar cigarettes to a green bullet and cigarettes with standard tar levels to a red one, and said, “It is meaningless to say which is better, to be killed by a red or green bullet.”

“I recommend not going near the bullets. Quit smoking instead,” she added.

Yang Gonghuan, head of the China Tobacco Control Office under the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), had previously blamed the tobacco companies’ low-tar promotion strategy for the 41.15 percent growth in cigarette sales in China from 2000 to 2010.

China is the world’s largest consumer of cigarettes. The country has 300 million smokers, and more than 740 million non-smokers are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke, according to experts’ estimates. About 1.2 million people die each year in China from smoking-related illnesses ranging from lung cancer to heart disease.

China is a signatory of the World Health Organization-initiated tobacco control treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), but implementation has been slow mainly due to interference from the country’s powerful tobacco industry, health experts have said. The FCTC requires nations to ban deceptive and misleading descriptions such as “low-tar” labels, they said.

Jonathan Samet, who chairs the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), told reporters in Beijing that he found Xie’s accreditation unusual.

“No one has made a conventional cigarette product safer,” Samet said. “A cigarette typically contains 7,000 dangerous chemicals and it is hard to say taking out one or two chemicals will make any difference.”

“And how do you know any cigarette is low risk without watching people use it for 20 years?” he said.

Funding for tobacco control ‘inadequate’

Updated: 2011-12-19 07:48

By Shan Juan (China Daily)

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BEIJING – Annual government funding for tobacco control is just several hundred thousand yuan for each province on the Chinese mainland, far below what’s needed and much less than the amounts provided in other countries, anti-smoking experts said.

In the United States, hundreds of millions of dollars are allocated annually for tobacco control research and projects, said Jonathan Samet, chairman of the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Although we’ve seen the prevalence of both the smoking epidemic and lung cancer decline in the US, tobacco control is still an urgent and important issue, given that nicotine is highly addictive and we don’t want our children to take up smoking,” he told China Daily in an interview on Sunday.

In 2011, the US had about 221,000 new cases of lung cancer, while about 157,000 people died from the disease, according to estimates from the US National Cancer Institute.

“Unfortunately, less-educated people today suffer the most from smoking in the US,” said Samet. He said that the smoking rate among the college-educated was less than 10 percent, but it was 40 percent among those who hadn’t finished high school.

Samet said that the prevalence of smoking peaked around 1961 in the US, when half of the men and 35 percent of the women smoked.

Now, less than 20 percent of the US population smokes. The rates are about equal for men and women but vary widely across the country, he said.

Tobacco control campaigns in the US started in the 1960s, following the first report linking smoking and lung cancer. Most offices and public places have become smoke-free in the past 15 years.

“Increasing public awareness and changing social norms helped achieve the change,” said Samet, himself brought up by parents who smoked.

The change has improved the US public health situation. Lung cancer rates among men began to drop some 20 years ago, while in women they are just beginning to decrease, he added.

However, in China, the lung cancer rate has kept increasing in the past decade, said Shi Yuankai, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Cancer Hospital. “It’s about an annual increase of 5 percent.”

“That rising trend won’t be reversed within 20 to 30 years, due to both smoking and air pollution,” he said.

Usually, smoking goes way up and about 20 to 30 years later, there is an evident rise in lung cancer, Samet said.

In China, smoking rates began to increase after the late 1970s and then dropped slightly in the 1990s, said Yang Gonghuan, head of the China Tobacco Control Office under the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

But in the early 2000s, the smoking rate “began to climb a little bit again”, she said.

Health experts attributed that change to Chinese tobacco companies’ low-tar promotion strategy, which was undertaken in response to rising pressure for tobacco control, particularly after China ratified the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005.

Between 2000 and 2010, China experienced a 41.15 percent rise in cigarette sales, official statistics show.

Samet said that reducing the amount of tar and nicotine in cigarettes didn’t change the risk to human health.

Asked to comment on China’s new “tobacco academician”, Xie Jianping, who was inducted into the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said: “That’s quite unusual and couldn’t happen in the US, where tobacco researchers are hired secretly by tobacco companies.”

Yang said the government’s monopoly on tobacco was the root cause of such a situation.

Unlike in the US, where the tobacco industry is regulated by health departments, specifically the FDA, China’s tobacco industry is regulated by the State Tobacco Monopoly Bureau, which also represents the China National Tobacco Corp.

Taking into account the huge costs of smoking, in terms of treating smoking- related diseases and the loss of lives, “the Chinese government should try to get out of the tobacco business,” Samet said.

China Daily

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