Smoking in China

If you’ve ever been to China one of the first things you’re likely to notice is that a great many people smoke. China is the largest tobacco-producing and consuming country in the world with 300 million smokers, or one quarter of the world’s total. In addition, there are reportedly 740 million Chinese exposed to second-hand smoke. In my book The Wild Wild East I touch on this, but let me now go into more detail.

A typical Chinese smoker lights up an average of 15.8 cigarettes a day which, for a national total, works out to be about 2 trillion cigarettes a year. Smoking and the resulting second-hand smoke has caused severe health problems with approximately 1 million Chinese dying from tobacco-related illnesses annually. Although the country has instituted anti-smoking laws and campaigns in an effort to combat the effects of secondary smoke, those efforts have largely failed. In fact, China enacted an indoor smoking ban in public places in May, 2011 but no one is paying attention. According to China Daily, 89% of restaurants, 58 percent of office buildings, and 35 percent of schools, hospitals, and public transportation still have smoking on the premises and therefore also have a secondary smoke hazard. China’s Ministry of Health acknowledges the problem of smokers lighting up in public places, in disregard of the indoor smoking ban, but blames this on enforcement of the law. One reason for this, as explained to me by an attorney in China, is that there’s only vague enforcement procedures and penalties in place for violators. People light up because there’s basically no reprisals.

Fifty percent of the men in China smoke versus about 5 percent of the women. As strange as it may sound today, those statistics also applied to the United States in the 1950s, and they currently apply to other Asian countries such as Japan. Why is that? There are thought to be two primary reasons why men account for ten times the number of women smokers. The first is that men try to act cool in their teens and get hooked on cigarettes early. Second, America’s 1950s business culture, and China’s current business environment, is one in which men drink and smoke, especially when they’re in meetings. In addition, China’s role models, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, for instance, were heavy smokers and were frequently photographed smoking. It normally takes decades to transcend through stereotypes, a business culture, and to educate people on the health associated problems of smoking. The United States has done that in the past half century. China is currently in the process of change, but change never occurs quickly with the Chinese people.

The government, for its part, doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to strictly enforce the law with only 6.1 percent of Chinese businesses having required designated smoking areas and only 1.4 percent having anti-smoking warning signs. One reason for this could be that tobacco accounts for more than 7.5 percent of China’s total central government revenue. The government, therefore, appears to be in no hurry to change the smoking habits of its people overnight.

When I’ve attended banquets and government functions in China, it’s not unusual to find a pack of cigarettes on the banquet table next to my place setting. If you don’t smoke you almost feel that you should, as most of those around you will be smoking and the air you’re breathing will probably make you an instant two pack a day person. I don’t smoke, so I usually give the pack of cigarettes in front of me to someone else who does smoke. But government officials, in particular, don’t buy off on this. They want you to participate in the carcinogenic haze. They’ll hand you a cigarette and then flick their Bic in an effort to get you to smoke. If you’re Chinese you almost always have to accept this offer from a government official. If you’re American, well, you’re American and culturally the Chinese don’t expect much from us. Americans can usually get away with not accepting the government official’s offer to smoke by claiming some malady. This will give the government official and you both an out and let the official save face. When this happens it would be good form for you to toast him. This will usually put both of you back on an even keel again. I’ve done this a number of times and it’s always worked.

I believe the Chinese will decrease their smoking habit, but it will be a slow process as smoking is much more ingrained in their culture than in Westernized societies. Until then, the only truly non-smoking area you’re likely to find is your hotel room hoping, of course, that your housekeeper doesn’t smoke.

Alan Refkin

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