The end of the world – or at any rate the end of China – is upon us!

How proud Dr Margaret Chan (Director-General of the WHO) and Helen Clark (Administrator of the UN Development Programme) must feel of their ringing rhetoric in warning of the catastrophe facing China! (Foreword to Health, Economic and Social Costs of China’s Tobacco Epidemic, WHO 2017)

Tobacco use kills six million people every year and is a threat to health and development…Tobacco use hurts families, impoverishes communities and damages economies and societies…

China – the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco – is the epicentre of this epidemic. A staggering 44% of the world’s cigarettes are smoked in China. One million people die of tobacco-related diseases in China every year…Tobacco use is killing or disabling the main wage earner in many Chinese families.. and plunging those already on the margins into poverty.

 If nothing is done…smoking-related diseases are on track to claim more than 200 million lives in China this century…

Splendid clichés and buzzwords abound:

…a huge step towards delivering on the vision articulated in the 2030 Agenda…a world transformed…and no one left behind…the WHO have (sic) joined hands to support realising the commitments…accelerate multisectoral and interagency responses to support full implementation…the broader goal of building a more sustainable and inclusive economy and society…we are united in an unwavering commitment to further the goals…to protect present and future generations from the devastating…consequences of tobacco consumption…in the name of the millions of victims already lost to tobacco, and the millions of lives that still hang in the balance. Amen. (Condensed and paraphrased.)

Then we move on, not just to the Summary, but to the Executive Summary! It, and the rest of the report, written by the well-named Angela Pratt and her colleague Andrea Pastorelli with the help of no less than thirty-five other people who contributed to this noble endeavour. The Executive Summary, curiously, repeats much of what is said in the Foreword: ‘Tobacco is on track to claim 200 million lives in China this century…’ etc.

Finally we come to the Introduction where, once again, just to make sure we don’t forget, we are told ‘More than 1 million people die in China every year as a result of tobacco use’ and  that ‘This will grow to 2 million annually by 2030, and 3 million annually by 2050 without action to drastically reduce smoking rates.’

They do, at least, set out some of the reasons for this appalling situation:

Fuelling China’s ravenous appetite for tobacco products…is the China National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC), the largest tobacco company in the world and one of the Chinese Government’s most profitable state-owned enterprises…China grows tobacco on more agricultural land than several other large tobacco-producing countries combined…the Chinese Government profits financially from every step in the tobacco production chain…In 2015, the tobacco industry contributed…US$ 170 billion, to the central Government – around 7% of total central Government revenue.

And then they go on a rant against the rulers of China, asking

…whether it is appropriate and ethical for a government to profit directly from an industry that derives its revenue from a product that kills

There’s more:

Tobacco growing causes biodiversity loss from deforestation and land clearing, soil degradation as tobacco growing depletes soil nutrients more than other crops, and land and water pollution as pesticides leak into the soil. Tobacco manufacturing produces a large amount of manufacturing and chemical waste, and cigarette butts when disposed of improperly are washed into rivers, lakes and the ocean where they are eaten by birds, fish and animals. Globally, cigarette butts make up the largest percentage of waste collected during beach cleanups every year.

What to do about it? This is what:

  • Increase tax on cigarettes by up to 100%
  • Institute 100% smoke-free public places
  • Ban cigarette advertising
  • Put horrible pictures on cigarette packs
  • Start mass media campaigns to warn people of the dangers of tobacco use
  • Health care professionals should give smokers cessation advice

Plus this pie-in-the sky:

The conflict of interest inherent in the tobacco industry’s involvement in China must be removed in order for effective implementation of tobacco control policies to be achieved

Wonder of wonders! If all the above measures (known as ‘tobacco control’) are instituted then by various statistical manipulations apparently one can predict by how much the prevalence of smoking will fall within a given period of time. For example, they estimate that:

A 50% increase in the retail price of cigarettes alone could…prevent 20 million premature deaths over 50 years, and save 8 million people from being plunged into poverty because of tobacco-related medical costs. (Emphasis added.)

Of course, any reduction in smoking-related deaths is to be welcomed, but assuming their predictions are correct, what about all the other people who will still die? How are the tobacco controllers going to reduce smoking prevalence to zero? Is that their aim or hope? Then why don’t they say so?

But while all this is going on Big Tobacco and especially the China National Tobacco Corporation are not going to do nothing and (assuming the above-mentioned tobacco control measures are effective) wait for the demise of their industry as smokers buy fewer and fewer of their poisonous products until, perhaps in one hundred years’ time, nobody bothers to buy cigarettes at all.

Just to get a sense of proportion about this, let’s look at another cause of deaths in China: traffic accidents. They cause over 200,000 deaths annually according to the WHO.

How can these deaths be prevented? Abolish traffic! But that would be impractical. So people need education in road safety and traffic regulations must be enforced. That should bring the number down but it’s unlikely it will ever be zero.

But why can’t tobacco be abolished? It serves no useful, let alone essential, purpose.

If the China government is serious about saving the health and lives of a significant proportion of their people they should start by closing down the cigarette factories.

Text © Gabriel Symonds

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