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Smoking gun: one in three men in China will die from tobacco, study says

Mainland labour force and public health system will face severe strain in the future unless smokers get help now to kick the habit, studies warn

By 2030, two million Chinese smokers will be killed annually because of their deadly habit – unless programmes are implemented across the country to help them kick the vice, a top medical journal has warned.

Studies published in The Lancet by researchers from Oxford University, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and the Chinese Centre for Disease Control showed that two-thirds of China’s young men smoke, and unless they quit, half of them would die from it.

“About two-thirds of young Chinese men become cigarette smokers, and most start before they are 20. Unless they stop, about half of them will eventually be killed by their habit,” said Oxford University’s Zhengming Chen, co-author of the article.

China has more than 350 million smokers, who consume over a third of the world’s cigarettes and account for a sixth of the global smoking death toll. The country’s population is 1.4 billion.

“The annual number of deaths in China that are caused by tobacco will rise from about one million in 2010 to two million in 2030 and three million in 2050, unless there is widespread cessation,” the researchers wrote.

“Widespread smoking cessation offers China one of the most effective, and cost-effective, strategies to avoid disability and premature death over the next few decades.”

Wu Yiqun, deputy director of the think tank Research Centre for Health Development, said the study highlighted China’s problem of young smokers.

“The estimate is scientific as it is based on preliminary studies and a summary of previous research,” she said. “The Chinese future is built by healthy youngsters; there is no Chinese dream if they are dying prematurely.”

Criticising the progress of China’s smoking ban as “far from ideal”, Wu urged the government to step up its efforts against powerful tobacco company lobbyists. “It will not hurt our economy as it’s a gradual process, we are not asking for an immediate shutdown of all tobacco plants.”

Yang Gonghuan, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences’ Institute of Basic Medical Sciences and a former National Office of Tobacco Control director, said: “If the government does not take the scientific studies seriously, the loss in public health expenditure and labour force will be catastrophic.”

China’s 2010 smoking death toll comprised some 840,000 men and 130,000 women. Smokers have about twice the mortality rate of people who have never smoked.

The proportion of deaths attributed to smoking among Chinese men aged 40 to 79 had doubled from about 10 per cent in the early 1990s to 20 per cent today, the researchers said.

Oxford University’s Richard Peto, one of the study’s authors, said tobacco deaths in Western countries had been dropping for 20 years, partly because of stiff price rises. “For China, a substantial increase in cigarette prices could save tens of millions of lives,” he said.

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