A Union Achiever.
Honge Liu, senior technical officer for tobacco control in China, features as The Union Achiever for May 2015. This series profiles the outstanding work of individual staff, consultants and members around the world.
Honge Liu was first drawn to disease prevention while studying for her medical degree. Although the course focused on curative medicine, preventative work had a greater appeal for her from the start.
"We saw so many people suffering with incurable diseases – illnesses that could have been avoided in many cases, through making better lifestyle choices. I felt strongly that prevention was more powerful than cure very early on in my studies," she says.
Supplementing her medical knowledge with a Masters in Social Medicine and Health Service Management, Honge went on to work as a journalist specialising in medicine and public health. Ultimately editing an academic medical journal for the University of Chonqing, she worked with academics and public health experts from around the globe.
Honge joined The Union China Office in Beijing more than six years ago as a technical assistant and project manager. Her role has since grown to involve communications, technical training, and most vitally, technical assistance for organisations running tobacco control initiatives funded with grants from the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use [BI]. Grantees include academic institutions, health authorities and nongovernmental organisations.
"I was very lucky to have joined The Union almost at the beginning of tobacco control in China," she says. "We have seen huge changes over the last decade, both in awareness of the harms of tobacco use, and in policies being introduced to protect people from these harms. These two elements work together to enable people to make healthier lifestyle choices and avoid the heart disease, cancers and strokes caused by tobacco use. As governments, including China, now face an imminent and dramatic increase of these complex non-communicable diseases across populations, they are looking at prevention measures with increasing urgency."
China is currently home to more than 300 million adult smokers – more than half the adult male population smoke. Projections show that, uncurbed, the tobacco epidemic will claim 3.5 million lives each year by 2030. As the greatest risk factor for non-communicable diseases, tobacco use is rising to become a key concern in the public health agenda.
During her time at The Union, Honge has worked on programmes that have resulted in eight major cities successfully introducing and enforcing smokefree legislation. These laws protect people from second-hand smoke and raise awareness about the harms of tobacco use. Recent surveys show that the measures are popular – on average 70 percent of respondents supported smokefree laws. And in Shenzhen, that figure rose to 90 percent. Of the 1,600 venues assessed for compliance in Shenzhen, only 10 percent were found to be flouting the law.
Thanks to the success and popularity of these city-level tobacco control programmes, a new national law is now being developed. Honge is working with Director of The Union China Office, Dr Gan Quan, to support the National Health and Family Planning Commission [formerly the Ministry of Health] on development of the legislation. It has now progressed to the State Council for review. When it comes into force, the new law will protect more than 1.4 billion people from the harms of second-hand smoke.
"In the day-to-day I work with BI grantees on tricky issues, solving problems or overcoming obstacles that are preventing tobacco control policies from being introduced or effectively enforced. This might involve gathering key community stakeholders for seminars to raise awareness and understanding about a specific issue, such as second-hand smoke. Or it might mean facilitating a training session for the enforcement teams responsible for ensuring people respect smokefree laws."
"It's exciting because now new cities are taking up tobacco control and introducing smokefree laws of their own accord, and without support. Local authorities are investing in this preventative work to protect the health of their populations. Because all the resources and roadmaps are now in place, this is possible!"
Honge attributes these successes to the excellent work and collaborative ethos of her fellow team members in The Union China Office.