(8 Oct 2015) LEAD IN:
A third of China's young men will be killed by tobacco according to a new study tracking smokers over fifteen years.
It says an alarming number of men begin smoking before they are twenty, increasing their chance of premature death by fifty per cent.
There is nothing unusual about seeing men smoking on the streets of Beijing.
Now researchers are warning that smoking is the single most preventable cause of premature death in China.
Their study is the largest in China and researchers say it provides the most up to date picture of the public health epidemic the country is creating for itself.
If you start smoking before the age of twenty, you have a 50% chance of dying - in China two-thirds of all young men are smoking by then.
Researchers from Oxford University, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and the Chinese Centre for Disease Control conducted two large, nationally representative studies, fifteen years apart.
The first in the 1990s involved a quarter of a million men.
The second involving half a million men and women is still ongoing.
Authors calculate the annual number of tobacco deaths had reached one million by 2010.
If this trend continues, by 2030 as many as two million men will be killed by tobacco each year, researchers say.
Professor Zhengming Chen is Director of China Programmes Clinical Health at the University of Oxford and he is the lead author of the new report published in the Lancet medical journal.
He says: "Into like early eighties, I mean the prevalence of smoking you know was very high, people used to smoke traditional forms of tobacco, hand rolled and pipe, wok pipe and which tend to be associated with a lower risk of mortality."
According to Chen, reports about the harmful effects of smoking have been largely ignored and there have even been confusing and wrong claims the Chinese biologically had a lower risk of getting smoking related illnesses like heart disease and lung cancer.
He says growing urbanisation and relative wealth in China has also contributed to the increase in smokers.
Chen says: "Since you know 1990s with the rapid economic development (that) opened up, China produced a very large quantity of cigarettes. I mean, for example Chinese men account for one-eighth of the world's total population, but consumes at least one-third of the total cigarettes in the world. So now our study shows actually the health consequences that are emerging."
The majority of the adult population in China has a cigarette habit, that's 300-million smokers.
There has been some progress, the number of people who quit smoking has also risen from three to nine per cent between 1991 and 2006.
The study also claims there is good new for those who quit before developing any serious disease.
After ten years of not smoking their risk was similar to that of people who had never smoked.
Researchers say they haven't yet investigated the reason for the increase in smoking, but at the same time smoking among Chinese women has fallen dramatically.
According to Chen ten per cent of women smoked in the 1930, but by the 1960s and 70's the number of women smoking shrank to just one per cent.
The researchers don't know why the experience of women has been different - they says it's unexplained and could be caused by a change in social habits or limited availability of cigarettes
Doctors fear the increase in male smokers could contribute to a reversal in this trend
China has some of the highest air pollution, but it is difficult to prove that air pollution is a factor in premature deaths because of other variables according to Chen, but he argues that's not the case with smoking, as it's easier to link cause and effect.
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