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Cigarettes as gifts undermines China's anti-smoking efforts
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Despite knowing all the harms of smoking, Li Pingping, who lives in Shanghai, still decided to buy two cartons of cigarettes as presents for her father back in southwest China's Chongqing.

"When you pick up gifts for the elders during festivals or anniversaries, cigarettes are a nice choice," she said.

Li will take the cigarettes with her on the three-hour-flight to her hometown Chongqing Municipality.

It's Chinese tradition to give cigarettes when meeting new friends or visiting relatives, either to show friendliness or respect.

But the tradition has long stood in the way of the government's and anti-smoking organization's efforts to discourage smoking.

Xu Guihua, deputy director of Chinese Association on Tobacco Control(CATC), said "the lack of understanding and support" has made their job difficult.

The truth is, in China, not only are the smokers exchanging cigarettes as gifts, nonsmokers are also fanning the flame by buying cigarettes for their friends and family and are unwittingly exposing themselves to second-hand smoke.

Li Pingping said her father is the only smoker in the family of four, but no one minds him smoking when they spend time together, nor do they mind when he meets with chain-smoking guests in their apartment.

"I always buy cigarettes for elders, they could send those cigarettes to their friends even when they quit smoking. It is a practical gift and, most often, they like it," she said.

But it is not easy to break the habit of smoking.

Yang Xu, doctor at the Cardiovascular Institute of Fuwai Hospital, said, "A small percentage of heavy smokers face the potential danger of sudden death as abrupt smoking cessation can cause many health disorders."

The Chinese anti-smoking authorities are aware of this problem.

Yang Gonghuan, director of the National Tobacco Control Office, has called for more effective publicity to help people understand the hazards of smoking.

And just days ahead of the Spring Festival, the Ministry of Health(MOH), the World Health Organization, and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention jointly launched a program to distribute 200,000 anti-smoking posters across the country.

"You have sent your friends both blessings and respiratory problems such as lung caner; you have sent your colleagues both respect and cardio vascular diseases such as heart disorders and stroke; you have sent your family love, care and death," a poster reads.

Non-governmental organizations and individuals are also joining the fight against smoking advertising campaigns.

Wu Yiqun, deputy director of the Thinktank Research Center for Health Development, a Beijing-based non-governmental organization, often asks anti-smoking experts to write complaint letters to health authorities.

His proposals included banning tobacco companies' sponsorship in Shanghai's Formula One, smoking scenes in the popular TV series the Shanghai Grand, accentuating warning signs on cigarette packs and dissuading tobacco companies from attending quake relief charity awards.

In spite of all the endeavors made, the result is far from satisfactory.

According to the annual smoking control report by MOH, the number of young smokers are on the rise.

MOH statistics show that about 350 million people smoke in China, or almost 36 percent of the population aged above 15, and about one million die of smoking-related ailments annually.

The number of young smokers aged from 13 to 18 has hit 130 million in China.

The tobacco control difficulty is that "a nonsmoking, no cigarette-distributing and no cigarettes as gifts has not emerged in the society," said Yang Gonghuan.

"It's part of the Chinese custom to send cigarettes as gifts. Sending cigarettes is, in fact, planting dangers," he said.

Chen Wei, 36, a primary school teacher who has smoked for 20 years, is fully aware of the hazards of smoking and has heard all the discouragement from health organizations.

But he still expects his friends to send him cigarettes.

"I would still buy cigarettes anyway. And if someone gave me cigarettes as a gift, I would save some money on that."

"A lot of guys smoke around me, and it's impolite if I don't get a pack ready to give them or not to receive my friends' or relatives' cigarettes when they want to show some closeness," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency January 30, 2009)

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