Smartphones are causing a 'visual health crisis' in China

A major Chinese health research center recently published a white paper on the country’s visual health.

The findings weren’t great.

According to a recent Nomura research report, the main two takeaways from the paper, from Peking University’s China Centre for Health Development, were that the prevalence of visual problems in China is far above the global average, and that the problem is quickly getting worse.

In 2012, around 500 million people in China had an uncorrected visual defect. 450 million of those had myopia, or nearsightedness. That’s about a third of the population. And the report forecasts that barring policy interventions, around 700 million people will have myopia by 2020 — half of the population.

In Taiwan, the situation is even worse. Around 11.5 million people are nearsighted, over half of the population.

Nearsightedness is especially prevalent among teenagers. 47% of China’s population aged 6-15, and 55% of those aged 16-25, are suffering from myopia.

According to the Nomura report, an academic study from the Australian National University estimated that the prevalence of myopia in 20-year-olds has reached 80% in developed Asia, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea. In the US and Europe, the rate is closer to 50%, which is still twice what it was 50 years ago.

Nomura suggests that some factors contributing to this crisis are the urbanisation, sedentary lifestyle, and prevalence of smartphones that have taken over China in recent years. The white paper cited the “intensity of near-range work and the decreasing intensity of outdoor activities, due to aggravating academic pressures and extensive use of electronic devices” as the main causes.

Smartphone penetration has been increasing in recent years, and when you combine the increased screen time with decreasing time spent outside, the eye strain and damage has serious consequences.

China’s eyesight problem is also having economic effects. The Peking University report estimated that the total economic burden due to visual defects was 682-691 billion yuan — 1.3% of the country’s GDP — due in large part to reduced labour participation.

Meanwhile, the market for glasses and contact lenses has been booming. According to the Nomura report, Euromonitor estimates that global sales of eyewear will reach $121 billion this year, and $136 billion by 2021.

The global contact lens market has also grown from $6.1 billion in 2010 to $7.4 billion in 2015, and could reach $9.3 billion by 2019, according to figures from Contact Lens Spectrum cited by Nomura.

The US is the largest market, accounting for 43% of total sales value. Mainland China’s market for contacts is a little less than 10% of that, but it’s been growing at a pace that is outpacing global growth, with contact lens import growth growing 34% over the past year.

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