Smoke Alert: Chinese Academy of Engineering Honors a Tobacco Researcher

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Sean Yong / Reuters

A meat vendor smokes a cigarette in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, on Dec. 9, 2011. China churns out more cigarettes than any other nation

Last month, the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) promoted a scientist to its ranks after his fourth attempt to enter the hallowed body. Not big news, perhaps, except the researcher in question, Xie Jianping, 52, happens to work for the state-owned tobacco industry. Even in a country wreathed in cigarette smoke — last year’s nationwide ban on smoking in many public spaces is routinely ignored — the appointment has caused a small furor.

On Jan. 4, the Global Times, a feisty broadsheet, ran a story saying that the appointment of a man who is vice president of a local tobacco-research institute funded by the government monopoly China National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC) “is another example of how well connected and influential the government-owned cigarette industry is in China.” Xie’s research centers on adding traditional Chinese herbs to cigarettes to reduce tar content — even though numerous international studies have shown that low-tar cigarettes are plenty harmful. He serves as the chief editor of Tobacco Science & Technology and boasts 23 patents and four copyrights to his name, according to the website of the Zhengzhou Tobacco Research Institute, where he works.

It’s not clear how Xie’s research relates to engineering, although the CAE apparently honors some scientists who are not engineers. On its website, the CAE says its fellows are selected for their “due contribution to social progress” and that they must have “excellent moral character.”

China churns out more cigarettes than any other nation. Half of Chinese men smoke. The Global Times reported that the CNTC paid around $75 billion in taxes in 2010, “making it one of the largest sources of revenue for State and local governments.” Of course, these revenues come at a significant cost. More than 1 million Chinese die of smoking-related diseases each year, according to Chinese government statistics that likely undercount the death toll.

Xie has been lauded in China before. He is the recipient of two second-class China National Scientific and Technical Progress Awards. Nor is he the sole tobacco scholar to have been voted into the CAE. In 1997, Zhu Zunquan, a now 92-year-old researcher who is venerated as “the founder and leader of tobacco science and technology in China,” was selected to join the CAE. It’s not clear whether the nonagenarian is a smoker.