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Starving China’s Tobacco Monopoly Is Li’s Smoking Cure

Professor Emerita Virginia Li tells Bloomberg about her revolutionary work in curbing China's tobacco use through crop substitution.
Monday, April 21, 2014

Watching Deng Xiaoping chain-smoke through a lunch of bear paw and Moutai liquor at the Great Hall of the People in 1982, Virginia Li saw what she was up against.

Li was an anti-tobacco crusader with a PhD in public health and the crazy idea the Chinese could be persuaded to give up cigarettes. “I said to him, smoking is bad for your health, and I hope you would stop smoking and the Chinese people will smoke less,” she says, recalling the meal with the reformist leader. Deng ignored her advice, and lived to be 92. And in three decades, the ranks of Chinese smokers swelled by 100 million.

A professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Li returned to China almost every year after she met Deng on a visit with her parents to the country the family left in 1947. Now 81, blind in one eye and reliant on a walking stick, she says she finally has the prescription for getting China to quit: starving the state-owned tobacco monopoly.

To do that, she’s focusing on the people who grow tobacco, not on those who use it.

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