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A new health initiative has got off to a busy start in Xiamen, a subtropical island off the south east coast of China, directly across from Taiwan. Based at the university of Xiamen, it was born out of discussions I had with students about my work with the BADvertising institute, which I started in the late 1980s in the USA. BADvertising (http://www.badvertising.org/) uses the power of art and humour to try to counter tobacco promotion, and support other tobacco control measures. Having learned about the situation in China and the dire predictions of future Chinese tobacco deaths during the world conference in Beijing in 1997, I had decided to come to teach in China, and to do something to help. Now, having learned about my past experience of control work, the students decided they wanted to do something similar.
First, we conducted several awareness-raising activities about the problems caused by smoking, about which there is still comparatively little knowledge in China; about 40% of male doctors still smoke, and half seem not to know that smoking can kill. We could not come up with a good translation for BADvertising, and trying to create an organisation turned out to be difficult and time-consuming, so we decided to bypass the paperwork and just get on with the work. As a loosely-knit group of students, teachers and community members, we made bookmarks, flyers and posters, gave slide slows and conducted a letter-writing campaign to loved-ones who smoked, and in the process received much interest and support from the media.
At the end of last year, the students started a BADvertising “English corner” to attract students who were interested in improving their English, and at the same time offer information on the harmfulness of smoking and secondhand smoke. It led to the name Green Breathing (Lu Si Hu Xi) and produced contacts to help set up an official organisation.
The mission of the Green Breathing Association is to work for a healthier China by educating the public about the harm of secondhand smoke, empowering passive smokers to protect themselves and their loved ones, and promoting the benefits of smoke-free environments. We use people’s interest in learning English as a way of attracting those who would not normally pay any attention to the topic of smoking, and we give our members a hands-on opportunity to use their English to make a real contribution to society.
In March each year, Xiamen hosts an international marathon, and although officially recognised too late for long term planning, the group was given permission to do something along the route. With help from several large and more established environmental organisations, we made banners, posters and petitions in support of a smoke-free zone at the marathon, hoping that the media would help get the word out. Unfortunately, no support was forthcoming. One factor possibly connected was that a major sponsor of the marathon was the Seven Wolves clothing company, better known to many as the Seven Wolves tobacco company.
Eventually, we publicised the plans ourselves, using text messages and other means, asking people to honour and enjoy the smoke-free zone, and to wear something green to show their support. We had no time or money for Green Breathing T-shirts, but instead made hundreds of twisted pieces of green ribbon similar to those used to mark campaigns associated with other campaigns. They were highly popular, and we even pinned them on the security guards who came to check on our activities. We began to realise just how helpless and oppressed non-smokers have felt in China. By declaring themselves as smoke-free zones, people can claim their right to smoke-free air without having to personally confront anyone, something to be avoided at all costs in China.
Despite many difficulties in operating among the crowds present at the marathon itself, the green ribbons and petitions were welcomed enthusiastically and received much media coverage. Subsequently, it has been reported on television that the marathon committee is seriously considering making the marathon smoke-free next year, and even divesting itself of tobacco company sponsors. As if in a show of strength, Seven Wolves flew a large promotional airship all over Xiamen for the week following the marathon.
Future tasks of the group include trying to help Xiamen university to go smoke-free, but already there are signs that the influence of tobacco interests may first have to be overcome. At a prestigious concert featuring many famous singers on campus recently, the Seven Wolves company was in evidence. But offers started coming in from pro-health allies, including a well known singer and a TV personality. Now the expanding group is redoubling its work towards a smoke-free China.