A smoke-free China is a healthy China

Updated: 2016-03-03 08:21

By Bernhard Schwartlander(China Daily)

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Deputies to the National People's Congress, the top legislative body, and members of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, or the top political advisory body, from around the country have descended (or will soon descend) on the capital to participate in the annual "two sessions". Since the Beijing local government passed the country's strongest anti-smoking law to date last year, visiting delegates will be able to enjoy a truly smoke-free environment in the city and during the course of the important discussions in the Great Hall of the People.

What better setting to kick off the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) period and to push forward the "Healthy China" that the 13th Five-Year Plan calls for!

But there is so much more to do. At the end of 2015, there were an estimated 315 million smokers in China according to data released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This is a truly staggering number. But even more troubling is the fact that the overall number of smokers actually increased by 15 million during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2010-15) period.

Since at least half of all smokers die as a result of their habit, the fact that China's addiction to tobacco is taking a dreadful toll on the country's health is now self-evident. And Chinese smokers are hurting not only themselves, but through second-hand smoke they are also hurting their friends, family and others around them. China simply cannot be a healthy and productive society when the overall number of smokers is growing.

The startling fact that the overall number of smokers is increasing by the millions every year should serve as a wake-up call to NPC deputies and CPPCC National Committee members that more - much, much more - needs to be done.

The first and most obvious step is to replicate the success of Beijing's smoke-free law nationwide. A very good draft national tobacco control law has been on the table at the State Council, China's Cabinet, for more than a year. Adoption of this law would be a huge step forward in support of the goal of a "Healthy China".

The World Health Organization calls on Chinese leaders and legislators to push it up the priority list and get it passed.

The public support smoke-free public places. All available data suggest that the Chinese people would strongly support a law making indoor public places 100 percent smoke-free. It's important here to say that the anti-smoking message from China's First Lady Peng Liyuan and co-founder of Microsoft Bill Gates was widely circulated on Chinese social media recently - that this particular image was so popular is a strong signal that there is public readiness for change.

NPC delegates and CPPCC National Committee members are witnessing firsthand the benefits of a smoke-free environment while in Beijing. They and the people they represent should be able to enjoy the same freedom from second-hand smoke back home.

A firm foundation has been laid with recent victories in the fight against tobacco with the success of Beijing's no-smoking law, last year's tax increase on cigarettes, and the restrictions placed on tobacco advertisement in the new Advertising Law. Each of these would have been unimaginable even five years ago; and all are significant achievements. But they are not enough - a "Healthy China" needs a national no-smoking law.

The author is WHO representative in China.

(China Daily USA 03/03/2016 page12)