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Tobacco cuts a deadly swathe through China

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While tobacco companies and their deadly products are under siege in Australia and many other developed countries, the death toll from cigarettes in emerging markets is soaring as they make huge inroads into markets like China and Indonesia.

A study in the peer-reviewed journal Cancer has highlighted the heavy human cost that has resulted, reporting that smoking now causes almost a quarter of all cancers in Chinese men.

The authors of the study said that since the 1980s there had been an explosion in the number of men in China who smoke, to the point that the vast Asian country now produces and consumes around 40 per cent of all the world’s cigarettes.

Already, smoking is estimated to cause 435,000 new cancers each year in China (83 per cent of them in men), and researchers warn this will be only the tip of the iceberg as the effects of increased smoking rates now feed through in coming decades.

“The tobacco-related cancer risks among men are expected to increase substantially during the next few decades as a delayed effect of the recent rise in cigarette use, unless there is widespreasd cessation among adult smokers,” the research team, led by Professor Zhengming Chen of Oxford University and Professor Liming Li of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, said.

The team analysed the results of a survey of more than 510,000 Chinese men and women conducted between 2004 and 2008, and a follow-up survey conducted after seven years found around 18,000 new cancers among those interviewed.

Underlining the dangers of tobacco, the survey found 68 per cent of men smoked, and they were at 44 per cent greater risk of developing cancer than non-smokers, particularly cancer of the lung, liver, stomach and oesophagus. The increased risk accounted for 23 per cent of all cancers found in people aged between 40 and 79 years.

But, in a result that should spur efforts to get people to quit the habit, the study found the excess risk of cancer had virtually disappeared 15 years after a smoker stubbed out their last cigarette.

Professor Zhengming said getting smokers to dump cigarettes would be the most potent and cost-effective strategies to avoid cancer and premature death “over the next few decades”.

The results came as Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash dismissed complaints by tobacco companies about an increase in the excise charged on their products in Australia, and reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to defend the country’s world-leading plain packaging laws against legal challenge in international forums including the World Trade Organisation.

Senator Nash said the heavy tobacco excise had helped reduce the proportion of Australians who smoke daily to an all-time low of 12.8 per cent.

Cigarette manufacturers have complained that plain packaging, the hefty excise and other Government measures are fuelling an illegal trade in tobacco, but the Minister said such “scaremongering…[was] no reason to roll back sensible health policies”.

Adrian Rollins