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Controversy over tobacco involvement in science award

2012-04-02 09:20 Xinhua     Web Editor: Xu Aqing comment

Health experts and tobacco control organizations on Sunday reiterated their opposition to a tobacco firm's research program being considered for China's annual national science prize.

China Tobacco (China National Tobacco Corporation) has applied to have its research into supposedly less harmful cigarettes included on a list of initiatives up for the honor. The Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) is currently soliciting opinions on whether the application should be passed.

But Jiang Yuan, deputy director of the tobacco control office at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDCP), said in an interview with Xinhua that there is no medical evidence that " Chinese-style" cigarettes, which involve lower nicotine and tar, do less harm to human health.

"Chinese people have the misunderstanding that low nicotine and tar content will be better for health," Jiang said.

On March 23, the MST posted a notice on its website to open a 40-day consultation on the possible consideration of "theoretical system and application of Chinese-style cigarettes" for the award.

Jiang said the development of Chinese-style cigarettes was actually aimed at improving cigarettes' taste through additives in order to promote consumption.

According to a report released in 2011, China is the largest tobacco producer, with the most consumers and victims around the world.

The report also showed there are more than 300 million smokers in China, where 1.2 million people die from tobacco-related diseases every year and another 740 million are affected by second-hand smoke annually.

In 2003, China signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and made it effective as of January 2006. Under the framework, it is committed to banning deceptive and misleading descriptions such as low tar on labels.

The nation also stated in its 12th Five-Year plan (covering 2011-2015) that it would ban smoking in public places in the period and include smoking-control measures for the first time in the next plan.

MST spokesman Wu Yuanbin told the Beijing Times that the application by China Tobacco is in its early stages, according to a report in the paper on Saturday.

"Every year, the national scientific awards will be finally chosen through a year's efforts including recommendation, examination and public notice," he said.

According to Wu, tobacco is a legitimate industry and new research in the sector is praiseworthy if it can reduce the harm brought about by smoking.

However, Jiang argued that, as a signatory nation to the FCTC, the government is responsible for controlling tobacco use and should not give any official awards to tobacco products.

The 29th clause of the law on national scientific and technological progress states that China bans any research activity which harms national security, social benefits, health and morality.

"The application by the candidate in itself is an offense to the law," Jiang said. "The government should come out with laws to control tobacco."

Xinhua learned on Sunday that the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control has written to the MST to show its opposition to the participation in the awards of the Chinese-style cigarette program. It would be in violation of the FCTC and undermine the nation's reputation, according to the association.

Suo Chao, its media executive, said that China Tobacco has not yet exposed information on additives in the cigarettes for examination and approval by the Ministry of Health.

He also pointed out that the application by China Tobacco will boost sales of Chinese-style cigarettes, which have increased by 173.6 billion yuan (27.6 billion U.S. dollars) in the last three years.

Yang Gonghuan, former deputy director of the CCDCP, said that the so-called tobacco progress is a pure fraud, taking advantage of the national scientific award scheme as a tool to cheat the public.

"The marketing strategy has made the tobacco industry's output grow by 40 percent in the last 10 years," Yang said. "The tobacco industry becomes the largest money machine at the sacrifice of human beings' lives."

The list of candidates for the science award will be finalized in late 2012, and the winner announced in early 2013, after judging by a panel of experts. Other potential candidates include initiatives concerning energy-saving materials, computer science and medical research.

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