Academy asks tobacco scientist to leave

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 May, 2012, 12:00am

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One of the country's most prestigious academic bodies, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has asked one of its members to quit because he specialises in refining low-tar cigarettes. The request came after an orchestrated campaign opposing his membership, and ahead of today's World No Tobacco Day.

Nearly 100 academics from the institute have written letters to its administrators demanding a reassessment of Xie Jianping's membership, The Beijing News reported.

Xie, 53, also has his fair share of supporters, not only fellow scientists who believe there are merits to tobacco research, but also the government, which owns and runs the nation's tobacco industry - a cash cow that generates hundreds of billions of yuan in revenue a year.

Scientists who dispute Xie's membership say his research into reducing the health hazards of tobacco by lowering tar content - which led to his being named a fellow of the academy - contradicts international health standards. The Beijing News said they also objected to Xie's membership being approved last year by a panel of environmental experts and chemists, rather than by the academy's medical and health fellows.

Wang Mengshu, a member of the academy, said the divide over Xie's membership and the subsequent media frenzy had become a big headache for the academy's administrators. He said its leaders had asked Xie to consider resigning - a solution that would save the trouble of a reassessment procedure - but that Xie declined, arguing he had done nothing wrong and that there was nothing wrong with his research.

Xie, who is also vice-president of Zhengzhou Tobacco Research Institute under the China National Tobacco Corporation, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Wang said that many of the academy's 800 members had decided not to take sides in the debate as moral standards in scientific research are not always as clear-cut. 'We have many members who spent their whole lives developing nuclear weapons. Isn't research into those weapons of mass destruction more terrible than tobacco?' he said.

But Wang Longde, a former deputy minister of health, said Xie's research not only had little scientific merit, but contradicted the United Nations' Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which was signed by the government six years ago. The treaty bans using terms such as 'low harm' or 'low tar' for cigarettes, as they give the public the illusion that tobacco is safe.

However, Professor Wei Fusheng, an academy member who supports Xie's work, said tobacco research was necessary. 'There must be some way to minimise tobacco's negative health effects,' he said.