China is ssssmokin’: tobacco that is. The country has more smokers than any other country in the world. If you don’t smoke in China, then you’re inevitably sucking in harmful second-hand smoke. With 350 million smokers and 540 million occasional smokers, China has a huge tobacco trade. Here are a few staggering statistics from the Tobacco Free Center:
- Between the 1980s and 2002 the average age in which Chinese started smoking dropped from 22.4 to 19.
- 11% of boys and 3% of girls aged 14 smoke.
- If Chinese smoking habits continue along their current trajectory, the number of tobacco related deaths will reach 2.2 million per year by 2020.
- Additionally, one-third of deaths among males aged 35-69 will be from tobacco by 2030.
- Over the past 30 years, deaths due to lung cancer have jumped an incredible 465%
- Poor, rural households spend an average of 11.3% of their income on tobacco products which is more than they spend on education (9.5%), clothing (5.7%), and housing (2.3%).
- Each year the country spends 1.9% its GDP, 186 billion RMB (22.7 billion USD), from smoking.
While cigarettes may have come from the West, nearly all of China’s tobacco products are made in country. The Chinese government has a monopoly on the country’s cigarette production, and only in the past few years have they allowed foreign brands to sell their products in the country. Tobacco import taxes decreased from 65% to 25% in 2004. According to Ebusiness Forum Philip Morris International (PMI) made an agreement with China’s National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC) to allow the company’s Marlboro brand to be manufactured in CNTC factories and distributed through their channels. With its own monopoly on cigarette smoking and the potential for significant revenue from foreign brands, many wonder if health will outweigh revenue.
Do the Chinese want to quit? From outward appearances, many Chinese do not seem to register the negative health effects caused by smoking. They freely smoke at home, in public, around children, and in hospitals. Smoking is a status symbol for both the poor and wealthy and increasingly for women. It’s the migrant worker’s release. The businessman’s hobby. The compliment to the young woman’s urban chic lifestyle. Cigarettes are wrapped in fancy boxes and given as gifts. They are sold outside restaurants and available at every corner store. Despite warnings on each pack that explain the probability of disease and death, the country has not had decades of anti-smoking publicity like those found on America’s TV, radio, and print.
It’s not hard to believe that everyday citizens are unaware of the health risks when doctors too seem to be ignorant of them. China Daily reports that one-third of doctors do not know that smoking cigarettes has a direct corollary to coronary heart disease and even more are unaware that second-hand smoke can cause sudden infant death syndrome.
China began dealing with this problem in 1992 with its first anti-tobacco laws which reduced tar in tobacco products, put bans on smoking in certain public places, put an age requirement on smoking, and mandated that cigarette boxes have health warnings on them. These initial laws did little to reduce the status symbol of smoking and today at least 60% of men smoke and 5-10% of women. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 3,000 Chinese die each day from smoking. China has a major dilemma when it comes to reducing its tobacco consumption and that dilemma is itself. While the government has closed at least 100 cigarette factories and organized campaigns to curb smoking, ultimately the leafy tobacco plant brings in considerable revenue for them. Many citizens, especially rural farmers and workers rely on tobacco for their livelihood. If smoking stops, so does the money which the government and many of its people have grown accustomed to. Anti-smoking advocates are concerned that this conflict of interest will keep smoking bans at bay. A new law passed this June showed some signs of progress. The law raised the tobacco tax from 6% to 11% in an effort to reduce consumption and boost revenue; however, as China Daily reports, cigarette companies have decided to absorb the cost instead of raising the price for a pack. Revenue is up, but smoking remains the same. Plus, smoking is costing the country 1.9% of it’s GDP each year, a staggering 188 billion RMB.
While progress is slow, there are definitely changes afoot. This year, the Ministry of Health declared that all hospitals must be smoke-free by 2011. Also by 2011, all tobacco-related advertising will be banned per a campaign by the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). In July, organizers of the Shanghai Expo 2010, which has committed to having a “healthy and smoke free Expo,” declined a donation of 200 million RMB (29 million USD) because it came from a tobacco company. Also in Shanghai, where one in four residents lightsup, a law has been proposed to ban indoor smoking. The Chinese Association on Tobacco Control (CATC) which was influential in the Shanghai Expo’s decision and is dedicated to deterring the glamorous view of smoking on the silver screen., has proposed an end to smoking on films and television, 76% of which contain scenes with actors taking a puff.
Ultimately, two things will change the habits of China’s smokers: education and support from families, friends, companies, and the government.