Stopping this slow mass suicide, affecting one third of young males in the world's most populated country, is the biggest challenge China faces. Two out of every three men in China become smokers before the age of 25, few quit and half of those who persist will eventually be killed by their habit.
To chart this growing epidemic, scientists from Britain, China and the US joined forces to conduct the world's biggest study of the hazards of tobacco, interviewing the families of one million people who died between 1986 and 1988. A second study examined the smoking habits of 250,000 adults and followed them to see what caused their deaths.
The findings, published today in the British Medical Journal, show that tobacco currently causes 750,000 deaths a year in China and suggest this will rise to three million a year by the time the young smokers of today reach middle and old age.
The World Health Organisation is so alarmed that it is sending a delegation to discuss the findings with the Chinese government this weekend.
Professor Richard Peto, from Oxford University, one of the study's authors, said Chinese adults severely underestimated the risks of smoking with 60 per cent unaware that it caused lung cancer. Not even Chinese doctors took the dangers of smoking seriously. "It's not yet got to the point where these numbers are real to the Chinese government or medical profession," he said.
Less than 10 per cent of Chinese tobacco is imported, and the country has enormous potential as a market for Western manufacturers who are already moving to head off the threat from the new research.
Yesterday, Ash, the anti-smoking charity, released an advertisement published in the South China Morning Post earlier this month on behalf of British American Tobacco seeking a doctor to join a "fast moving consumer goods industry".
The advert did not mention tobacco but the job description sent to applicants said they would be expected to promote the company view of smoking and "develop insight into China specific science ... to meet the objectives of the company".
Clive Bates, director of Ash, said the advertisement highlighted the conflict between the marketing objectives of the post and its supposed scientific role.
BAT yesterday denied it was involved in a campaign of disinformation and said it had dropped the post. Tobacco companies are aiming at young people across the developing world. Last year, BAT sponsored China's first rave event in Shenzen. In Malaysia, the company evades the ban on direct advertising by promoting the "Benson and Hedges Bistro"in Kuala Lumpur.
The BMJ study provides the first nationwide evidence of the effects of tobacco in a developing country. Worldwide, cigarettes are expected to cause four million deaths a year by 2000, half in poor countries, and if smoking patterns persist this is expected to grow to 10 million deaths by 2030, 70 per cent of them in the developing world.Reuse content