BEIJING, July 18 (Xinhua) -- China's Health Minister Chen Zhu on Wednesday became the first person from the Chinese mainland -- home to one third of the world's smokers -- to receive a prestigious World Health Organization (WHO) award on tobacco control.
The Director-General's Special Recognition Certificate, which Chen received this year, is among a few awards the WHO gives every year to individuals or organizations for their accomplishments on tobacco control.
Indeed, under Chen's watch, unprecedented progress has been made in the country's uphill battle against smoking. The Ministry of Health is actively enforcing a ban on smoking in hospitals and other medical institutes across the country.
The ministry also released the country's first Report on Health Hazards of Smoking in May. The report, to be disseminated particularly among medical practitioners, is expected to have an influence on par with the Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Tobacco Use in the United States.
Public awareness of harms of tobacco is rising. At least in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, smokers are more likely to be frowned upon if they light up in public places. And more than a dozen major cities have enacted or are drafting laws on tobacco control -- aiming to create 100 percent smoke-free environment for most indoor public venues.
The tide might have started to turn but for some time China seemed to have no chance winning the battle against tobacco use.
There is still a long way to go, however. There are 300 million adult smokers in China, many of whom have only a little knowledge of the harms of tobacco. In fact, smokers customarily refer to the smoking habits of the country's two most revered leaders -- Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Both were known heavy smokers and lived to a relatively old age: Mao died at 83 while Deng at 93.
China's tobacco sales grew 2.81 percent from a year ago to 1.31 trillion cigarettes in the first six months this year, according to the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration. That translates into about five cigarettes smoked by every Chinese every day. Amid economic downturn, the tobacco industry remained one of China's most profitable sectors, reporting a profit of 152.04 billion yuan (24.08 billion U.S. dollars) in the first half of this year.
A 2010 survey showed that 40.4 percent of China's male doctors smoke -- some even light up in their offices while treating patients. The smoking rate among China's medical practitioners is the highest in the world. Furthermore, half of the Chinese medical practitioners did not know that low-tar cigarettes are not any safer than regular ones, the survey revealed.
The ministry's report, for the first time, specifies that tobacco smoke contains at least 69 carcinogenic chemicals and details the links between smoking and a wide variety of illnesses -- backed with solid medical researches. Smoking already kills more than 1 million Chinese a year, according to the ministry's estimates. The death toll could rise to 3 million by 2050 if no significant progress on tobacco control is made.
For the government, the most important move should be to separate tobacco interests from the tobacco control efforts. In the current system, there is obvious conflict of interest as the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration is staffed with the same personnel of China National Tobacco Corporation -- the world's largest cigarette company.
China has ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control but lets the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which supervises State Tobacco Monopoly, to chair the treaty's implementation coordinating committee. The Ministry of Health takes a back seat.
"There needs to be a firewall. A blockage between the state company promoting tobacco products and the government agency whose job is to resist tobacco use," a WHO official once said.
"Key people at the high level need to make these changes. There are several high-level officials who are already aware of this. They are very active and hopefully they can push for these changes," the official added.
The proposal for the split-up of the tobacco company from the government monopoly has been considered at the high level, sources familiar with the matter say. And there are calls for the State Council, the cabinet, to take over from the MIIT to lead the national tobacco control campaign and better coordinate between different government departments.
In fact, the central government included tobacco control in its five-year plan for 2011-2015. It is the first time the government made this clear commitment on tobacco control in its five-year plans since the first plan was made in 1953, surely a reason to be optimistic about winning the country's battle against tobacco use.