China is one of the major consumers of tobacco in the world. The country is home to hundreds of millions of smokers, leading to widespread concerns about the impact of smoking on public health. Cigarette smoking affects not only those who smoke, but also other non-smokers by exposing them to second-hand smoke, which is estimated to affect around 740 million Chinese.
Furthermore, more than one million people are losing their lives every year due to the ill-effects of tobacco consumption such as lung cancer, according to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates. Against this backdrop, pressure is mounting on the Chinese government to step up its efforts to tackle the smoking problem of the population.
As part of the measures, a draft national regulation banning smoking in all indoor and some outdoor public places, and requiring stronger warning labels on tobacco products, is before the country's State Council.
The government, however, wants to go even further and is mulling a host of policies to curb smoking. The issue of public health is also likely to be one of the main topics of discussion at the ongoing annual meeting of China's National People's Congress (NPC), the country's legislature. The Standing Committee of the NPC is currently considering changes to the national Advertising Law to strengthen restrictions on tobacco advertising.
In this context, Bernhard Schwartlaender, WHO Representative in China, says in a DW interview that action against tobacco is urgent in China and that it is the single most important measure that can be taken towards better health for Chinese people.
DW: Why is the dealing with the tobacco issue so important for China at the moment?
Bernhard Schwartlaender: More than one million people die every year in China as a result of tobacco use. This figure will increase to three million by 2050 if current smoking rates remain unchanged.
Acting on tobacco is therefore urgent - and may be the single most important measure that can be taken towards better health for Chinese people. We know what the problem is, and we know what needs to be done.
How is smoking affecting the health of the Chinese people?
China is the largest tobacco producer and consumer in the world. Nearly one-third of the world's one billion smokers are Chinese men. Every minute, two people in China die as a result of an illness caused by tobacco smoking.
The very high rates of tobacco smoking in China, especially among men, are not consistent with the aspiration for all Chinese people to live long and happy lives. The scientific and health evidence is unequivocal. If you smoke, you will most likely die an early, and probably very painful, death.
What progress has China made in this field?
China has made some progress recently - for instance, the capital Beijing will become smoke-free from 1 June, and a draft national law to ban smoking in public places is before the State Council right now.
What important health measures are set to be discussed at this year's NPC?
The NPC Standing Committee is currently considering changes to the national Advertising Law to strengthen restrictions on tobacco advertising. A draft national regulation to ban smoking in all indoor and some outdoor public places, and requiring stronger warning labels on tobacco products, is before the State Council.
Now, strong political commitment is needed, along with steely determination to stare down interference from the vested interests of the tobacco industry. This will translate the promise of progress into strong, well-enforced tobacco control policies which save lives.
What do you urge the National People's Congress to do?
We urge China's lawmakers to adopt the full suite of policy measures contained in the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) - such as smoke-free public places, complete ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, graphic warnings on tobacco packs, raising tobacco taxes, and providing more support to smokers to quit.
Experience from around the world has shown that these policies lead to lower smoking rates, and fewer people dying preventable tobacco-related deaths.
Dr Bernhard Schwartlaender is the Representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) in China.