Got a Light? The Status of Smoking in China

December 12, 2011 // echinacities.com //

China’s nationwide smoking ban, which prohibited lighting up in any public space anywhere in the country, was put into effect in January 2010. Similar bans had been effectively enacted in major cities across the Unites States, and throughout most Western European countries as recently as last year. It was a shock to many when even smoke-centric Italy and Germany laid down their lighters and joined the front to fight for smoke-free public spaces. But if you’ve been living in China for the past two years, you wouldn’t know such a policy was enacted here, too. Any evening, at any restaurant or bar, the clouds of smoke aren’t trying to hide from anyone.

A Chinese Epidemic

Outside of China’s expat population, the percentage of smokers in this nation is heavily skewed towards one gender: Over half of China’s adult male population regularly smokes, compared to a mere 2.4% of the female population. In a society still dominated by peer pressure, social influence and public reputation, there is no easy way to “just say no” when offered a cigarette.

Got a Light? The Status of Smoking in China
Photo: WSJ Blog

Smoking, no matter with friends, business partners, or family, is not only a symbol of camaraderie and partnership, but can also be a form of respect. Denying a cigarette from a potential business partner can be detrimental to the deal. During banquets, cigarettes offered as a gesture of one’s appreciation will rarely be declined. Refusing a smoke will not be interpreted as a man’s knowledge of his own health, but as a potential symbol of weakness and a chance of losing face.

Within circles of Chinese teens, though the pressures of adulthood and potential business deals haven’t settled in yet, peer pressure acts the same as it always has. Another study postulated that one-third of male teens and 8% of female teens in China smoke. There are no age limitations for the sale of tobacco products, and the youth have yet to be fully educated about the risks of smoking. The taboo that has been placed in many places like the U.S., where high-school kids secretively smoke pawned cigarettes in the dim shadows of abandoned parking lots, has not yet reached their Chinese counterparts.

Got a Light? The Status of Smoking in China
Photo: Business Week

Who’s to blame?

But who is responsible for educating the Chinese, young and old? The Chinese are tied with the Koreans for second place with the highest percentage of smokers within their population, coming in second only to significantly underdeveloped and uneducated Cambodia. In fact, one third of cigarettes consumed worldwide are smoked in China each year, at a staggering rate of approximately 3 million per minute.

The governmental organisation responsible for anti-smoking policies in China is the State Tobacco Monopoly Association (STMA). Coincidentally (or, perhaps not), this organisation also oversees the China National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC), the nation’s largest and most prolific cigarette producers. The CNTC is actually the largest in the world, accounting for 30% of the world’s supply. In 2009, the CNTC produced 2.3 trillion cigarettes. Incredibly, in 2010, China’s Big Tobacco paid 498.85 billion Yuan in taxes to the Chinese Government, accounting for a staggering 8% of the Government’s revenue. Talk about a conflict of interest!

Even when a hike in tobacco taxes was implemented by the government in 2009, the tobacco companies easily absorbed the additional costs to keep their prices down. And cheap they remain. With a pack of cigarettes costing as low as 4 RMB for local Chinese brands (leaving this author to only imagine what the cigarettes contain within), the Chinese are hard pressed for any financial incentives to quit. Nor are they finding any desperate pleas coming from the health sector.

Paging Dr. Smoke?

Almost 60% of male physicians have admitted to smoking in front of their patients. Until very recently, smoking had not even been restricted in many of the nation’s hospitals and health care facilities – and if it was, offenders certainly were not punished or fined. In a survey conducted by World Health Organization (WHO), 60% of the 300 million smokers in this country did not know that smoking could lead to lung cancer. A whopping 96% of the same folks were not aware that it led to heart diseases.

In an age where KFC and McDonalds are combining forces to create an obese generation of Chinese children, this statistic is even more alarming. If the Chinese do not become educated on the risks of smoking, combined with their rising obesity problems, a healthy future for the Chinese population looks as dismal as the ash at the end of their cigarettes.

Smokers vs. Non-smokers: An age-old battle

As foreigners, we have long been engrained with the idea that smoking is bad for our health. With laws enacted in the US ages ago, and more recently the ban of smoking in public places in most of the E.U., it has become culturally unacceptable to smoke even in some outdoor locations. To an expat smoker, Chinese bars and restaurants become a haven where one can have dinner, enjoy a beer and have a smoke – and not be completely ostracised by your peers. And perhaps the best news of all, China provides an inexpensive alternative to an otherwise wallet-busting habit.

But to non-smokers, the crowded and smoky bars, smell of cheap cigarettes and walking behind too many smoking Chinese men (who smell enough as it is) gets old all too quickly. Etiquette suggests it is hospitable to keep a supply of cigarettes, an ashtray and lighter in your house, even if you don’t smoke – an absolutely outrageous concept to some foreigners.

But certainly, both smokers and non-smokers alike cannot deny the adverse health effects that smoking yields, and as expats we should probably know this better than the 60% of Chinese who don’t. Both sides must admit that China could do a better job managing its tobacco regulations and smoking laws. More options should be provided, rules enforced, and people educated. As China is opening up to the Western world, it is realising that it can’t stay under a cloud of smoke forever. Unfortunately, only a minority of China’s population is rejoicing. Everyone else is left wondering what gift to give when invited to the next banquet.