Scientists team up to cut smoking in China
Peng Liyuan’s visit to US in 2015 led to joint effort to help China’s 316 million smokers kick habit
It started with a brief but poignant comment from China’s first lady Peng Liyuan, and it has led to an American psychologist and smoking-cessation researcher and a Chinese scientist working together to solve one of China’s biggest problems: helping 316 million smokers quit.
When she accompanied her husband President Xi Jinping on a trip to Seattle last September, Peng visited the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She met with center president and director Gary Gilliland, philanthropist Bill Gates and others.
The visit’s purpose was for Peng to learn more about collaborative efforts between the center and China.
During her visit to the cancer center’s campus, Peng was briefed by Jonathan Bricker, head of the Tobacco and Health Behavior Science Research Group at the center. He spoke about his research using a clinically proven smoking-cessation app for US smartphones. Studies show that using the app is two to three times is more effective than trying to quit cold turkey.
Peng has led a campaign to lower smoking rates in China, where an estimated 1 million die each year of tobacco-related causes, according to the World Health Organization. In
... We need measures to help individual smokers.” It is not easy to find a right partner and I am very lucky.”
2012, she and Gates appeared together to promote an antismoking campaign in Beijing, ahead of the 25th World NoTobacco Day.
After Bricker told Peng that a similar app could help 16 million people a year in China quit, Peng said, “In my own family there are three smokers. I really hope they can find a better way to quit smoking.”
At the time, no one expected the impact of that remark.
But Cheng Feng, a professor and chief physician at the Research Center for Public Health and School of Medicine of Tsinghua University, read the media coverage of the conversation and was very interested in Bricker’s work.
Cheng’s research interest is in prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, strengthening the health system, big data and healthcare, aging health, China health development aid and its role in improving global public health. Recently he turned his attention to the smoking problem in China.
“I had been looking worldwide for good ways to solve the problem until I found Bricker’s amazing work,” Cheng said.
Cheng reached out to Bricker by e-mail, then Skype. In January, Bricker traveled to Beijing. Last week, Cheng came to Seattle.
Now Bricker and Cheng are working to create a new way to help China’s 316 million smokers quit. They are working to develop Smart Quit China, a mobile app that could make smoking cessation widely available. Last week, they received data on the content of 66 existing stop-smoking apps available for smart phones in China.
About the partnership, Cheng said it was “love at first sight”.
In addition to noting the good chemistry between them, Bricker said that Cheng has a passion and vision to reduce the smoking rate in China, and has demonstrated his commitment through quality research. “Plus, Cheng is a very good scientist who has quality mythological skills and a cando attitude. It is not easy to find a right partner and I am very lucky.” Bricker told China Daily.
Like the US app, the Chinese version will focus on Bricker’s paradigm, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, which uses an innovative method that provides tailored exercises and ongoing support messages to help people notice and accept smoking urges instead of trying to suppress them.
It could take five to six years to develop the SmartQuit China app, Cheng said. Both are very confident that with enough funding their project will succeed.
Neither Cheng nor Bricker is paid extra for work on the project. “We want to make the investment because we really want to make impact on real people,” Bricker said.
Smoking affects nearly 27.7 percent of China’s adult population. According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of Chinese smokers increased by 15 million in the past five years, making the total number of smokers 316 million by the end of 2015.
Peng spearheaded efforts that led to last year’s law requiring all indoor public places in the capital city of Beijing to be smoke-free, a move that affects more than 20 million people.
“Efforts like this reduced the health risks of secondhand smoke. However, we need measures to help individual smokers.” Cheng said.
Cheng led a research seminar for preparing the Smart Quit China research project with about 14 scientists from China leading institutes such as Tsinghua University and world organizations in January.
He said it’s very important to understand the need of the app users in China through surveys and a pilot study.
“The possibilities of using mobile technology for smoke cessation are huge. This is just beginning, the best yet to come,” Bricker said.
China’s anti-smoking ambassador Peng Liyuan and Bill Gates attend an anti-smoking campaign in Beijing in this file photo taken in 2014.
Cheng Feng, professor, Tsinghua University