Public health experts from Georgia State University have been partnering with Chinese cities in their quest to stamp out smoking for nearly a decade. 

Now, the school itself is getting something out of the deal: a unique partnership with an ambitious Chinese city that could lead to real collaborations on pressing public health issues. 

In mid-November, Georgia State’s School of Public Health signed a five-year agreement to work on tangible projects with the Chengdu Municipal Health and Family Planning Commission, the local unit of the national agency charged with implementing various health policies in China.

Chengdu, located in China’s southwest, is known for its pandas and laid-back lifestyle (some joke that the famous bears, who loll about while munching on bamboo, set the tone for the region). 

But Chengdu is also a bustling metropolis where a seven-line subway system is under construction and gleaming skyscrapers sprout from newly planned urban districts. 

Michael Eriksen, dean of the GSU public health school, says Chengdu’s health officials seem as ambitious as its economic boosters: They floated the idea of the partnership while visiting Atlanta this summer. 

“They’re driven and they’re positive and they’re confident and they’re open to new ideas,” Dr. Eriksen told Global Atlanta during an interview at his hotel Chengdu, just before he met with leaders from the commission and the Chengdu Center for Disease Control

Signing deals in China is nothing new for U.S. universities, which have often resorted to the well-trodden “memorandum of understanding” to codify their faculty and student exchanges with partner institutions. 

But Dr. Eriksen said working directly with a municipal government is relatively rare.

“We’re excited that because this is between Georgia State and a city, it will be very much be applied public health,” Dr. Eriksen told Global Atlanta during an interview in Chengdu. “That’s what public health really is: Helping agencies and institutions protect and promote the health of their citizens.”

Chengdu is vying for a national government designation as a “healthy city,” which would meld well with its reputation as a city that values sustainability. 

Tobacco control —getting smokers to quit and non-smokers to avoid starting — will be a pillar of the new pact, as it’s what opened the door to the relationship in the first place. 

Dr. Eriksen is leading a $2.1 million grant from Pfizer Inc. to help five cities formulate anti-smoking policies and action plans. The project was designed to continue the work of the 17-city China Tobacco Control Partnership, initially funded through a $14 million Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to Emory University

Overall, 22 cities have participated in the partnership since it began in 2009, with Chengdu applying to join in the latest five-city cohort. The city is currently considering a rule banning smoking in public places. 

Over the last decade, Dr. Eriksen has traveled to China more than 20 times, forging relationships with public-health leaders at the local and national levels. 

On this latest trip, accompanied by Pam Redmon, executive director of the China Tobacco Control Partnership, Dr. Eriksen had a chance to deliver his second lecture on tobacco control to Chengdu health leaders.

Speaking to Global Atlanta again after the eventhe said that more than 100 people showed up to hear him say that helping people quit smoking is the single most effective thing the city can do to improve public health. 

China is home to more than 300 million smokers, the most in the world, and about half of men smoke. Dr. Eriksen contributed to a study finding that one of every three young Chinese men will die from smoking-related causes without serious interventions. He said China is about where the U.S. was in 1964 in terms of smoking prevalence. The tobacco epidemic could kill 200 million by the end of the century, according to the World Health Organization.  

“I tell people when I talk here: Can you afford to wait 50 years? Because we know what will happen: There will be millions of deaths from lung cancer and emphysema and heart attacks if you do,” he said. 

But China’s centralized government structure gives it a chance to tackle the problem quickly if it can overcome competing concerns like lost revenue from its powerful tobacco monopoly, which accounts for 7 percent of government revenues through taxes and sales of cigarettes by some estimates, he said. 

“China doesn’t wait 50 years to do anything. That’s what so exciting about it. It’s such a dynamic country that it transforms itself literally overnight through buildings and highways and stadiums,” he said. “That’s on the physical plane. Can China do the same on the social plane?”

The GSU agreement isn’t all about tobacco. Written in English and Chinese, it also calls for work on “communicable diseases prevention and control, non-communicable chronic diseases prevention and control, healthy environment, health service, biomedical science, and other areas.” Joint research and grants will be pursued on these subjects as well, with the goal of publishing in medical journals. 

Each side can ask the other expert assistance on their own projects and they may also develop joint training programs for public health personnel. Any funding mechanisms would be evaluated and renewed on an annual basis. 

And working with the city doesn’t preclude working with other universities. While in Chengdu, Dr. Eriksen met with Sichuan University’s West China School of Public Health to discuss further collaborations. 

The school’s long history of working not only on tobacco control but also on issues like access to care in rural areas reinforced Dr. Eriksen’s interest in working with the city.