China Faces Economic Growth Threat as Tobacco Spurs Cancer Risk

China, the world’s biggest cigarette market, may suffer slower economic growth because of cancer and other chronic diseases that are hurting the labor force, Health Minister Chen Zhu said.

Non-communicable diseases which cause prolonged sickness are responsible for four out of five deaths in China, compared with about 63 percent globally, and absorb about 70 percent of the nation’s health spending, Chen said in an interview yesterday. Fighting the threat requires tighter scrutiny of the tobacco industry, linked to 1 million deaths in China, he said.

China’s gross domestic product has grown an average 10 percent a year for the past three decades, transforming the nation into the world’s biggest exporter and replacing Japan as the second-biggest economy after the U.S. At the same time, the country now counts more than 90 million diabetes and 120 million chronic kidney disease sufferers -- the most in the world.

“If we don’t curb the fast rise of chronic diseases in China, it will have an impact not just on people’s health, but also on society and the economy,” Chen, 59, said on the southwestern island of Hainan, where he is attending the Boao Forum for Asia. “It could affect the continuity of our economic growth because a lot of deaths caused by chronic diseases are in people younger than 60.”

The government wants to improve the efficiency of health services as it grapples with a rising incidence of life-long diseases. While the elderly were looked after in the past by their children, urbanization and the nation’s one-child policy have eroded the tradition of family care, shifting the burden to the state.

$558 Billion Cost

Unless preventative steps are taken, early deaths from so- called non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer will crimp China’s national income by $558 billion in the decade ending 2015, according to the World Health Organization. Half of sufferers who die of chronic diseases are under 65 years of age, according to the World Bank.

China will consider expanding its health-care workforce and increasing resources near major cities to improve access, Chen said. The government will also look at introducing standards to ensure quality isn’t compromised amid a new tendering system tested in Anhui province that encourages drugmakers to compete for state contracts to supply essential medicines.

“In evaluating the essential medicines, we need to put quality as the priority and not just the price,” Chen said. “The prices of drugs and equipment are a little bit high in China. Balancing the growth of the industry and controlling health expenditure is both a challenge and a dilemma for the government.”

Tobacco Addiction

Tobacco also presents another dilemma in China, the world’s biggest producer and consumer of the aromatic leaves, accounting for 38 percent of cigarettes smoked worldwide in 2009. The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, the industry regulator, runs the world’s biggest cigarette maker, China National Tobacco Corp.

“The commercial activities of the tobacco companies should be totally separate from administrative supervision,” Chen said. “We are strengthening the leadership issue in China, and one of the key aims is to enhance the government’s supervision of the commercial activities related to tobacco,” he said.

Rapid industrialization and migration to cities that brought sudden improvements in living conditions have contributed to the increase in chronic diseases, said Chen, who as a 16-year-old youth in 1970 was sent during the Cultural Revolution to work in rural Jiangxi province. He taught himself traditional Chinese medicine while working in the villages and began practicing as a so-called barefoot doctor, according to a 2007 interview he gave to the People’s Daily newspaper.

Rush to Diabetes

“The social transformation in China is remarkable, but it is also maybe too rapid,” Chen said yesterday. “Once people get past poverty and start to lead better lives then new challenges start to emerge like diabetes.”

East Asians may be more susceptible to developing the metabolic condition because they tend to carry more of their body fat around their abdomens -- a more deleterious place to store energy, he said.

“For East Asians to become diabetic, they don’t need to be very obese,” said Chen, who received formal medical training in Shanghai and a doctorate in 1989 from the Université Paris Diderot, where he specialized in hematology. “We need to figure out the biomarkers related to these kinds of disease tendencies so we can identify the high-risk populations and offer them preventive measures,” he said.

Chen is the first and sole minister-level Chinese official who doesn’t belong to any political party, and only the second minister not from the ruling Communist Party. He dedicates a small portion of his time -- about 2 percent -- to scientific research at the Shanghai Institute of Hematology, with the support of his wife, a doctor, and his mentor Wang Zhen-Yi, he said.

Chen and Wang were both awarded the Szent-Gyorgyi Prize in January by the U.S. National Foundation for Cancer Research for their work on a new leukemia treatment. He didn’t rule out returning to the laboratory full time when his current term as health minister is slated to end in March next year.

“It will depend on the needs of my people and my nation,” he said.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Daryl Loo in Beijing at dloo7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jason Gale at j.gale@bloomberg.net

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