A New Uproar Over Chinese Tobacco Research

Cigarette research draws fire.

Tomasz Sienicki

China's scientific community is up in arms again over tobacco. Last year, researchers protested the election of a tobacco scientist to the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE); this month many are criticizing the nomination of a tobacco research project for the 2012 National Science and Technology Progress Award.

Candidates for the award were announced last month by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). Among them is a research project titled "formulation and application of a theoretical system for Chinese cigarettes," nominated by the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (also known as the China National Tobacco Corporation). The cited achievements include improving quality and marketability of Chinese cigarettes and new sales revenue of about $27.5 billion over the last 3 years.

The invitation for public comment produced an uproar. On 3 April, Yang Gonghuan, former deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and now a professor at Peking Union Medical College's School of Basic Medicine, published an open letter to science minister Wan Gang calling on MOST to ban tobacco research from being considered for national science awards.

Then on Sunday, editors at China's foremost science Web site and blog, ScienceNet.cn, began collecting signatures from readers opposed to cigarette research's consideration for a science award. As of Friday, some 700 people have signed. ScienceNet will continue to collect signatures for 2 more weeks, and then forward them to MOST on 30 April, the deadline for comments. In addition, 30 members of CAE, mostly from the division of medicine and public health, wrote to ScienceNet editors on Monday in support of the petition.

Responding to the outcry, a MOST spokesperson said that the tobacco research nomination has followed normal procedures.

Yang sees the vigorous response as a sign that Chinese society has awakened to the importance of tobacco control. When tobacco scientist Zhu Zunquan was elected to CAE in 1997, there was little comment. But last year, after a second tobacco researcher, Xie Jianping, was elected to CAE, Chinese media and many citizens denounced the academy's decision. Xie's low-tar research had received the National Science and Technology Progress Second Prize three times: in 2003, 2004, and 2010. Some CAE members who voted for Xie cited the prizes as partial justification for electing him, according to Chinese reports.

CAE member and food safety expert Chen Junshi, who has written in his blog that he was ashamed of CAE's decision to elect a tobacco scientist, is now calling on MOST to avoid another embarrassment like the "tobacco academician" and drop tobacco research from its list of prize candidates.