Most people know that smoking can result in lung diseases, such as lung cancer. But few are aware that smoking is also the biggest contributor to cardiovascular diseases, which is now the biggest threat to people’s health.
Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death globally, with 17.1 million lives lost every year.
In accordance with the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which came into force in early 2005, all public places and some indoor places in China will be off-limits to smokers from Jan 1, 2011, the Ministry of Health stated last week. The ministry also said its building will be the first to ban smoking indoors starting from May 31, 2010.
“It’s an absolutely necessary move,” Hu tells China Daily, “because quitting smoking can drastically reduce the risk of heart diseases”.
Indeed, a study published by the British Medical Journal last year, which has followed the health of 19,000 male civil servants for almost 40 years since 1970, reports that smoking can actually cut one’s life span by 10 to 15 years because of the cardiovascular risks linked to smoking.
Also, the upcoming smoking ban could give more protection to non-smokers.
Figures from the Health Ministry reveal that there are currently 350 million smokers in the country and 540 million non-smokers are estimated to be suffering from second-hand smoking, with more than 10,000 deaths caused by exposure to second-hand smoking every year.
“Smokers are not only jeopardizing their own health, they are also putting others at risk,” Hu says. “They are, in effect, robbing the rights of non-smokers to live.”
Born in 1946, in Henan province’s Kaifeng, Hu grew up in a family of doctors. His mother was a gynecologist and his father contributed greatly to the establishment of the railway medical system in Central China.
It was not surprising that Hu was admitted to the then Beijing Medical University (today’s Peking University Health Science Center) in 1965 as the highest scorer in Henan province in the National College Entrance Examination.
Hu has published more than 500 academic papers and 30 books on cardiology, especially on intervention therapy in coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease prevention.
However, as the 23rd World No-Tobacco Day -which falls on May 31 – draws nearer, Hu is not optimistic about the actual effects of the smoking ban.
As a cardiologist, Hu has been calling on people to stop smoking for years. But it is only in the past five years that voices like his have been taken seriously.
“It’s not an easy process, not easy at all,” he explains. “It’s hard for experts’ views to be transformed into government policies, even harder when there are vested interests in an industry such as tobacco.”
International events, such as the Beijing Olympics, the Shanghai Expo and the Guangzhou Asian Games, are perhaps lending more impetus than any other force, Hu says.
“Chinese care the most about face,” Hu says. “So occasions such as these are ideal for China’s push to ban smoking.”
Doctors and government health officials, too, are contributing to a casual attitude to the health risks of smoking.
“Some doctors are still smoking in front of their patients,” Hu says, “and some officials flaunt their cigarettes publicly, not feeling in the least uncomfortable.”
“How can you demand that the public stops smoking when doctors and officials are still holding cigarettes in their hands?”
In developed countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, puffing in public not only attracts hefty fines – up to $500 and 50 pounds ($74) respectively – but the offenders are also shamed. But in China there’s no policing to begin with, Hu laments.
“It’s all about a lifestyle choice,” Hu says. “At a time when Westerners are walking and riding bicycles and getting rid of fast food, we Chinese are going nuts about cars and McDonald’s and KFC.”
One can easily keep fit, Hu says, as he pulls a pedometer out of his pocket.
The figure shows 10,024 on the meter. “I take at least 10,000 steps a day, 3,000 of which are continuous,” he explains.
While the Ministry of Health recommends a total of 6,000 steps every day, a study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2009 says a minimum of 3,000 steps in 30 minutes is more effective.
“The standards may vary, but the point is clear,” Hu says. “If an old man like me can do it daily, why can’t anybody else?”