Tobacco scientist uproar flares

Updated: 2011-12-16 13:35

By Shan Juan (China Daily)

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Activists call on academy to rethink election of industry's low-tar expert

BEIJING - Xie Jianping, the so-called tobacco academician, should be removed from the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering, anti-smoking activists urged.

Tobacco scientist uproar flares

A man ignores a nearby no-smoking sign in the waiting hall of Foshan Bus Station in Foshan, South China's Guangdong province.[Photo/China Daily]

"We've submitted a letter to the academic body asking them to rethink their choice because the low-tar cigarette Xie has been working on is totally pseudo science," said Xu Guihua, deputy director of the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control.

"They've received the letter and said they would process it according to the rules," she told China Daily on Thursday.

After the academic body announced online on Saturday that Xie, deputy director of China National Tobacco Corp's Zhengzhou Tobacco Research Institute, who specializes in refining low-tar cigarettes, was elected to be an academician, criticism against him and the country's most prestigious academic body has not stopped.

An online writer surnamed Liu was the first to raise questions, just two hours after the announcement. His objection was later echoed by health experts and the general public, non-smokers and smokers alike, said Yang Gonghuan, head of the China Tobacco Control Office under the Chinese Center for Diseases Control and Prevention.

"I've smoked low-tar cigarettes for a few years, because I thought they do less harm to my health," said Liu Bin, 28, in Beijing. "I feel cheated to learn that they also kill."

The issue of "smoking affecting health" has long been known worldwide, and reducing the harm of cigarettes is the biggest topic facing the tobacco industry, Xie Jianping told the Zhengzhou-based Dahe Daily right after being elected to the academy.

"We are striving to minimize the health hazards to smokers while satisfying their demand for tobacco products," he said.

That statement, said Yang, seems to show Xie somewhat recognizes tobacco's health hazards.

Xie is not the first in the tobacco industry to receive such an honor.

In 1997, Zhu Zunquan, Xie's predecessor, was elected by the Chinese Academy of Engineering, becoming the first to represent the tobacco industry in the academic body, which advises the government.

Starting in the early 1950s, China's tobacco industry was facing recurrent shortages of tobacco leaves for more than 10 years.

Zhu, now 92, who had just received his master's degree in US at the time, returned to China and researched and developed technologies such as winter tobacco planting, tobacco alternatives, and low-tar cigarettes, which are said to have helped the industry prosper.

"Zhu's election made no splash in the society back then, nothing like the situation today," said Yang Gonghuan, who also signed the letter sent to the academic body.

"The change mirrors increased public awareness of tobacco control," she said.

"We are not sure if the letter will bring any change or not, but by our sending it, the public will be properly informed that low-tar cigarettes don't do less harm and the whole thing is actually a big lie by the industry," she said.

Sarah England, a tobacco control specialist with the World Health Organization representative office in China, agreed, citing accepted scientific findings such as that almost 50 percent of long-term chain smokers will die from smoking-related diseases like lung cancer.

"Low-tar cigarettes, a response by the industry to the finding in the 1960s that smoking could kill, don't reduce the harm at all. They are just intended to mislead the public with the hype," she said.

She compared low-tar cigarettes to a green bullet and regular-tar cigarettes to a red one, and said: "It's meaningless to say which is better, to be killed by a red or green bullet".

Others who criticized Xie include Wang Longde, former deputy minister of health, who said his election was against the law.

In 2005, China ratified the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) at the annual session of National People's Congress, endorsing guidelines for its implementation with government support.

"And that also became a binding law in China," England said.

The FCTC requires signatory nations to ban misleading descriptions such as "light" and "low-tar" on cigarette packaging and advertising.

"Therefore, Xie's election is against the law," Wang said.

He also blamed loopholes in the academy's election procedures for Xie's election.

Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the election of the "tobacco academician" was a sign that even scientific circles in China are not fully aware of the true harm done by tobacco.

"Without correction, that will further mislead the general public to believe low-tar cigarettes could cause less harm to health," he said.

To remedy the situation, he suggested the tobacco industry be regulated by health departments.

"It's high time for the central government to make the right and historic decision," he said.

Despite China being a FCTC nation and the government's pledge to control smoking, particularly in public places, the anti-smoking efforts were led by a work group comprising the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, a regulatory body that shares management with the China Tobacco Corp.

"It won't work, and it's ridiculous to put the cigarette seller in charge of tobacco control," said Xu Guihua.

China now has 300 million smokers on the mainland, according to government statistics. Millions of non-smokers are regularly subjected to secondhand smoke and 1.2 million people die each year from smoking-related diseases.