World: Tribute to Professor Teh-wei Hu, health and tobacco control economist

Last month, the global tobacco control community lost one of its great intellects. Professor Teh-wei Hu passed away on 3 February 2020, following a short illness. Professor Hu was an economist whose expertise and accomplishments helped to establish tobacco taxes as one of the most effective measures to reduce smoking. In a career spanning 50 years, he contributed in many areas of public health. His work in tobacco control had a global impact, particularly in China and California, but also in other countries in East Asia and Africa.

Professor Hu joined the University of California, Berkeley faculty in the late 1980s. Professor Robert Scheffler, credited with bringing Professor Hu to Berkeley, stated in a tribute posted on the Berkeley website (edited extracts published with permission):

It took me over two years to recruit Teh to Berkeley, and it paid off big time for the school, our students and each one of us who were lucky enough to know him. Teh’s accomplishments made him a towering figure in public health and everyone who knew him understood what a caring, helpful and modest person he was. We will miss him dearly.”

For much of his career at UC Berkeley, Hu researched the economic and health benefits of tobacco taxes. In 1989, shortly after joining the faculty, he advised California policymakers on Proposition 99, which increased the tax on a pack of cigarettes to 25 cents and established secure funding for the landmark California Tobacco Control Program. His research demonstrated that such a tax would cut smoking and its associated disease outcomes, reducing medical costs and increasing revenue for tobacco education and prevention programs. Fifteen years after the state passed Prop. 99, the tax had cut medical care costs in California by an estimated $86 billion.

Hu brought this research to China, where nearly a fourth of the country’s population smokes, and advised Chinese health officials and policymakers to introduce its first tobacco tax in 2015. Throughout this work, Hu published multiple books and articles on tobacco policy in China and began advising former students and colleagues around the world on tobacco-related health policy and interventions. His influence soon began impacting research in Indonesia, Tanzania, and elsewhere. In 2011, the CDC appointed him to its Interagency Committee on Smoking and Health, and in 2014, the World Health Organization honored him with a World No Tobacco Day award.

Beyond his work in tobacco policy, Hu will be remembered as a kind mentor and a passionate advocate. After retiring from teaching in 2004, he continued to advise students on their research and considered it a part of his mission to elevate their work for the good of public health. “We want to make a difference in the world and save lives,” he recently said, referring to his team of colleagues and students.

Read the full UC Berkeley tribute here.

Professor Hu’s colleagues in global tobacco control spoke warmly of a man who was modest, warm and generous, in addition to his intellectual contributions and mentorship of younger researchers:

I was very fond of Teh-wei – he was a valued colleague over several decades, and his work on tobacco economics, especially in Asia and particularly in China, will live forever. He was also a courteous, thoughtful and warm friend.” Professor Judith Mackay, Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control

“I first met Teh-wei when working on the World Bank report in the late 1990s, and got to know him well when we worked together on a program supporting economic research on tobacco taxation in China.  He was one of the most insightful, generous and nicest people that I have had the pleasure of working with and a true leader when it comes to the economics of tobacco control in China and globally.” Professor Frank Chaloupka, University of Illinois at Chicago

“Teh was a warm and humble guy devoted to using economics to combat smoking, making a particularly important contribution in Asia. He earned the respect of the profession, but equally important, he was someone whom everyone genuinely liked. He will be deeply missed.” Professor Emeritus Kenneth Warner, University of Michigan

Teh’s commitment to making progress on tobacco control in China is legendary.  I bumped into him in the San Francisco airport and he was on his way to China for a one-day meeting with authorities on tobacco.  Then he was going to turn around and come back.  I also had several postdoctoral fellows who had worked with Teh as graduate students.  They saw him as a tireless, committed and generous mentor.” Professor Stanton Glantz, University of San Francisco, California

World Scientific noted that is has lost a prolific author and educator. In his 50-year career, he published more than 200 publications on health economics, economics of tobacco control, mental health, and health care reform. Professor Peter Berman, editor-in-chief of the World Scientific Series in Global Health Economics and Public Policy in a tribute to Prof Hu said: “We are sad to share the news of the untimely passing of Prof. Teh-wei Hu on February 3, 2020. Teh-wei was a world-renowned health economist, a distinguished scholar, and a generous and much loved colleague.”

Read the World Scientific tribute here (includes a list of some of Professor Hu’s flagship publications on tobacco policy in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan).

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