China’s unhealthy habits drive chronic diseases up

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Unlike in the U.S., where salt is usually consumed through processed foods like bacon, cheese and fast food, the high sodium intake in China comes from the liberal use of soy and oyster sauces and the flavor-enhancer MSG, which is added to soups, stews, instant noodles and other foods. The popularity of pickled mustard greens, cabbage, radish and other vegetables also contributes.

The average Chinese person consumes 11 grams (0.4 ounces) of salt a day, compared to Americans, who eat 8.5 grams (0.3 ounces), Embarek said. “We believe that it’s one of the places where if you can reduce it just a little bit, not even down to the maximum recommended level, but just a little bit, you will swiftly see a positive impact in public health.”

Another big killer is smoking, which is linked to 1 million deaths in China every year. More than a quarter of adults in China smoke, roughly 350 million people _ a number about equal to the entire U.S. population.

In May, China tried to ban smoking in indoor public places. But in a country where half of all male doctors smoke and cigarettes are commonly presented as gifts, such restrictions are usually ignored.

Restaurants in Beijing are reluctant to turn away customers who light up. The Beijing Capital International Airport became the first in China to go smoke-free this spring, three years after all public venues were supposed to for the Olympics.

At China’s top cancer hospital, the Cancer Institute and Hospital of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in southeastern Beijing, large no-smoking signs are prominently displayed on every floor and the rule appears to be strictly observed. That’s unusual. In many county hospitals people light up in waiting rooms and along corridors outside wards.

In the cancer hospital’s lung oncology department, a 55-year-old man sat slumped in a chair, tapping his foot nervously as he waited for his father to emerge from a consultation. The man, who would only give his surname Li, said the news that his 70-year-old father was diagnosed two weeks ago with lung cancer shocked him into immediately giving up his pack-and-a-half daily smoking habit, as well as drinking.

“The scans showed a spot on his left lung that was this big,” said Li, indicating with his fingers a circular shape of about an inch in diameter.

“It was not difficult for me to quit smoking. I have to do it for myself and for everybody around me,” he said. Li said he was fortunate that insurance provided by his government job would cover most of the expenses for his father’s treatment.

Others are not so lucky. After decades of underfunding the health care system, China recently poured $124 billion into building hospitals and expanding state insurance coverage, but there are still many for whom a serious chronic illness _ like cancer _ can wipe out a family’s life savings.

After only one round of chemotherapy, 25-year-old Wang Yuanjin fears he won’t have enough money to continue the treatment that is keeping his leukemia at bay. Wang was working a summer job before starting postgraduate studies at a university when he was diagnosed several weeks ago with the disease.

Already the disease has cost his family 110,000 yuan ($17,200). That has forced his parents, soybean and wheat farmers from Henan who make about 10,500 yuan ($1,600) a year, to borrow from relatives and friends. Only about a third of the total so far will likely be reimbursed by state health insurance, Wang estimates.

The cost of treating leukemia is so high that some of those diagnosed simply give up on treatment. Wang has moved into a tiny room near the hospital and is writing a blog seeking donations for a bone marrow transplant. The cost: 600,000 yuan, or $94,000.

“My father is going to go home and sell whatever he can sell,” he said.

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