Obituary: Dr Weng Xin Zhi, China’s “Grandfather of Tobacco Control” (1919-2012)

Judith Mackay, World Lung Foundation

28 August 2012

The pioneer of tobacco control in China has died at the age of 93. In 1984, Doctor Weng Xin Zhi published the first national adult smoking survey, the landmark study awakening the Chinese government to the enormity of the tobacco problem. It was also published in English, a shrewd move to engage the world in the problem of smoking in China. He was the first in China to grasp that the tobacco epidemic would never be solved in the corridors of hospitals and clinics, but in the corridors of power and government. He optimistically concluded that the study would change views on smoking and establish a new social norm, and the study even included detailed suggestions such as less smoking in movies and TV.

Dr Weng attended the 1985 Washington DC “First international summit of smoking control leaders,” the first time that China joined the growing group of global tobacco control advocates. It was at that meeting the realisation dawned that the issues of tobacco control were virtually identical around the world, whether the governments were democracies, kingdoms or communist; the harmfulness of tobacco, the obstacles and the action that needed to be taken, were the same. Dr Weng, representing China, personified that message to colleagues in the West.

In 1987, Dr Weng led a team of Chinese colleagues, helped by a small number of foreign specialists, in the drafting of China’s first tobacco control law, which was implemented in 1992. The topic was so sensitive that the first planning meeting had to be held outside Beijing, in Tianjin. The law contained the core elements of advertising bans, smoke-free areas, packet warnings, health education, tar reduction (from some very high levels). The law might seem mild by today’s standards, but it was a giant leap forward for China. It established the harmfulness of tobacco – a principle that would drive all future tobacco control legislation.

He was academically honoured for his work in several fields of health. But his main legacy will be as the pioneer in China’s tobacco-control campaign. He was the executive vice president of the Chinese Association on Smoking and Health in 1991-1998 and was principal investigator of WHO Collaborating Centre for Tobacco or Health from 1986. He was the first Chinese awarded the WHO Smoking and Health Commemorative Medal in 1989.

Dr Weng was a dedicated and unassuming man, and was deeply moved by the toll of disease, disability and death from smoking he saw in China, and which he rightly predicted would increase substantially in the future. No-one has equaled his contribution in saving the lives of Chinese from the diseases of tobacco.