By Xinhua writer Wang Cong
BEIJING, Jan. 2 (Xinhua) -- A group of anti-smoking researchers found in formerly secret corporate documents that a leading tobacco company had attempted to divert public attention from the dangers of secondhand smoke, hoping to re-focus China's health policy.
Monique Muggli, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in the United States, and her colleagues published a research article based on her finding on documents from British American Tobacco (BAT).
The previously classified documents were held in depositories in Minnesota and Guildford, in the United Kingdom. The documents had been declassified in response to litigation against BAT.
The primary strategy of BAT, the researchers argued, was to divert public attention from secondhand smoke issues towards diseases unrelated to smoking, such as liver problems.
Another dodgy method was to urge the avoidance of complete smoking bans in public places including restaurants and airports, asserting that tobacco smoke is just one insignificant source of air pollution and ventilation and air filtration is sufficient to deal with the problem.
The research was published in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed online academic publication, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine.
The Ministry of Health estimated in 2007 that 540 million Chinese were exposed to secondhand smoke, resulting in over 100,000 deaths annually.
"As highly regulated markets continue to result in decreasing profits for transnational tobacco companies, they will look to less regulated markets in low to middle income countries," Dr. Kelley Lee at the London-based Center on Global Change and Health, co-author of the thesis, told Xinhua Friday via an email.
"Other research has demonstrated that the industry has supported a wide range of charitable activities with the purpose of furthering its own interests," Dr. Lee said. "China is the largest cigarette market with more than 350 million smokers, .. (and) transnational tobacco companies are keen to take a larger market share in the future."
BAT was found to have provided funding for a Beijing-based charitable foundation to distract attention away from smoking to non-tobacco-induced liver diseases, among which hepatitis is a major health concern in China. BAT China tried to influence policy-makers to put priority on the No. 1 infectious disease, or hepatitis, in China, the thesis said.
Meanwhile, the academic article said, additional strategies were launched by BAT aimed at weakening secondhand smoke policies in China. Similar to what the company had done in the UK, for example, BAT sought to promote air filtration technology for hospitality venues and lobbied for separate seating for smokers and non-smokers.
BAT China declined to comment on the PLoS Medicine finding by referring Xinhua to BAT London headquarters which is "the only place would make comment." So far, Xinhua's email request for comment has received no answers.
"Despite the tobacco industry's public efforts to appear socially responsible by supporting charitable organizations, a fundamental conflict exists between the interests of tobacco companies and public health," Dr. Lee said.
Not surprised at the latest finding, longtime anti-smoking activist Gregory Yingnien Tsang said such an attention-shifting ploy is part of a "long-running tactic" used by the tobacco industry in Western countries as well as in emerging economies.
The 76-year-old American Chinese has been advocating smoking control in public areas in China for the past 17 years.
Although the tobacco industry always sponsors sports and charitable activities in China to show its benevolent concerns and healthy attitude, Tsang said, "what they are really after in the end is still publicity and advertising."
The case of the Zhongnanhai cigarette is an instant example, Tsang said. The cigarette manufacturer printed a promise on individual packs to donate certain amount of money to China's Project Hope, a poverty relief drive to help financially-challenged rural families to help their children to complete their elementary education, even after tuition fees being waived.
"Such a promise is in fact an ad, which would not be allowed in many Western countries," Tsang said, "but here we go in China."
One of the biggest misunderstandings in Tsang's eyes is that taxation from the tobacco industry would be an important source for government incomes and tight restriction on smoking would hurt the industry and subsequently the national economy.
"Statistics supported the assumption that tobacco taxation gains were far less than what China lost in deaths and medical expenses related to smoking," Tsang said.
Tsang attributed difficulties in smoking control to lax legislation. "The top priority is to adopt an anti-smoking law that bans smoking in all public areas in the country," he said, adding that China has made remarkable progress in its smoking control.
China joined the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005. The government has pledged to ban all types of tobacco advertising and promotion by 2011 in accordance with its obligations under the FCTC.
The country's capital Beijing banned smoking in most of its public places, including hotels, schools, movie theatres, and offices in May this year. Smoking in the city's taxis was also banned.
"The signing and ratification of the FCTC is perhaps the most significant declaration of the government's commitment to the protection of public health from tobacco," Dr. Lee said.
"China is certainly moving in the right direction, but these efforts need to be redoubled if the country is to avert a looming public health crisis," Dr. Lee said.