China faces huge costs unless it reduces smoking now: WHO

Premature death and impoverishment only the most visible of the problems smoking will bring to China. In other health news: Google unveils data-collecting device; and what the eyes tell us about emotions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 10:40am

Smoking-related diseases will claim 200 million lives in China this century and impoverish tens of millions, a report has said. China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco, and the industry provides the government with colossal sums. In 2015, it contributed 1.1 trillion yuan (HK$1.24 trillion) in tax revenues to the central government. But a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said the Asian giant will suffer an economic toll if it does not urgently reduce its smoking population.

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The paper, “The Bill China Cannot Afford”, estimated that the total annual economic cost of tobacco use in the country in 2014 was 350 billion yuan, up tenfold from 2000. “If nothing is done to reduce [the death rate] and introduce more progressive policies, the consequences could be devastating not just for the health of people across the country, but also for China’s economy as a whole,” WHO China representative Bernhard Schwartlander said.

The calculation includes both the direct costs of treating tobacco-related illness and the indirect costs such as lost work productivity. Rural-to-urban migrants are more likely to be smokers, the report said, adding that they risk descending into poverty when smoking-related medical costs become too great – a reality at odds with the government goal of eradicating poverty nationwide by 2020. The organisations recommended a smoke-free policy across the country akin to laws in Beijing and Shanghai, where smoking is banned in most public places. AFP

Google subsidiary unveils device to gather health data for studies

Alphabet’s life sciences unit Verily has unveiled a “Study Watch” designed to gather complex health data in clinical studies. Study Watch is meant for research and will be put to work in several studies including a multi-year study to identify patterns in the progression of Parkinson’s disease, according to a blog post by Verily team members David He, Tushar Parlikar and Harry Xiao.

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“The ability to passively capture health data is critical to the success of continuous care platforms and clinical research,” the post from Google’s sister company said. “Study Watch represents another step in our targeted efforts to create new tools for unobtrusive bio-sensing.”

Study Watch appeared styled after a traditional timepiece and boasted features including long battery life and encryption for stored data. “Multiple physiological and environmental sensors are designed to measure relevant signals for studies spanning cardiovascular, movement disorders and other areas,” the blog post said. “Examples include electrocardiogram, heart rate, electrodermal activity and inertial movements.”

Verily was part of the Google X lab known for big vision projects such as self-driving cars and internet service delivered by high-altitude balloons, but was spun into an independent unit at Google-parent Alphabet in mid 2015. AFP

Eyes offer a window on to our emotions’ evolutionary past

Eye expressions offer a glimpse into the evolution of emotion according to research at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology. According to the recent study, published in Psychological Science and reported by, we interpret a person’s emotions by analysing the expression in their eyes – a process that began as a universal reaction to environmental stimuli and evolved to communicate our deepest emotions.

For example, people in the study consistently associated narrowed eyes – which enhance our visual discrimination by blocking light and sharpening focus – with emotions related to discrimination, such as disgust and suspicion. In contrast, people linked open eyes – which expand our field of vision – with emotions related to sensitivity, like fear and awe.

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“When looking at the face, the eyes dominate emotional communication,” said Adam Anderson, professor of human development at the college. “The eyes are windows to the soul likely because they are first conduits for sight. Emotional expressive changes around the eye influence how we see, and in turn, this communicates to others how we think and feel.”

This work builds on Anderson’s research from 2013, which demonstrated that human facial expressions, such as raising one’s eyebrows, arose from universal, adaptive reactions to one’s environment and did not originally signal social communication. Both studies support Charles Darwin’s 19th-century theories on the evolution of emotion, which hypothesised that our expressions originated for sensory function rather than social communication.

“What our work is beginning to unravel,” said Anderson, “are the details of what Darwin theorised: why certain expressions look the way they do, how that helps the person perceive the world, and how others use those expressions to read our innermost emotions and intentions.”