Why China Can't Quit Tobacco


After my first trip through China, I returned to Seoul with two tins of golden Yunnan tobacco, a present for one of the instructors at the university where I taught. He was a raw-boned, red-blooded American who smoked heavily and had heard good things about Chinese varieties. He was not disappointed.

Not being a smoker myself, I’d done research to make sure I brought back something sapid. I read about Yunnan’s award-winning flue-cured tobacco, the only method that produces tobacco high in sugar, taught myself to judge quality, and read up on the history of tobacco in China.

I learned, for instance, that tobacco was almost unknown in 16th century China and that in 1637 the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, declared that anyone caught selling tobacco would promptly have their head removed — a ban that ultimately failed, possibly because his ministers were already addicted. Indeed, according to the 1643 classic Yutang Huiji, which recounts everyday life in the capital, one of the major changes in Beijing at the time was the newfound popularity of “tobacco liquor.”

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Whenever I think of the current government’s attempts to curb smoking, I’m reminded of Chongzhen’s ban, and that it may have failed because too many officials were already hooked. Chinese officials these days are similarly hooked, though not on the drug itself; they’re hooked on the profit that comes from dealing the drug.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in 2012 China produced 3.2 million tonnes of tobacco, making it the world’s largest producer. The next three largest producers — India, Brazil, and the United States — produced 2 million tonnes combined.

Much of China’s product is consumed locally. In fact, roughly one-third of the world’s smokers are Chinese, and in terms of per capita use, China ranks 21 out of 185 nations, according to data from the 2014 World Cancer Report.

It’s therefore no surprise that the world’s largest cigarette manufacturer is the state-owned China Tobacco, whose nearest competitor is Philip Morris. But even Philip Morris cannot compete. As Bloomberg’s Andrew Martin explains, in 2013 China Tobacco made 2.5 trillion cigarettes whereas Philip Morris made 880 billion.

Not only is China Tobacco the world’s largest cigarette manufacturer supplying the world’s largest cigarette market but, as Martin notes, “almost all its cigarettes are sold in the country, where it has no real competition.”

These fantastic profits are further elevated by the fact that in China, cigarettes can be a form of conspicuous consumption. One of the most popular brands is Hongtashan, which sells for a few dollars a pack, but some brands fetch as much as $890 per carton, and according to the blog China Whisper, one carton of Huang He Lou will set you back roughly $1,290.

It’s a grim scene, one in which the Chinese government is making a killing (pun intended) selling cigarettes to its people. The consequences have been catastrophic. A 2015 report by The Lancet shows that smoking kills one in three young Chinese men. Making matters worse, Geoffrey Fong, lead author of a 2015 study by the International Tobacco Control Project, indicates that in China it’s not enough to quit either, since “China is unfortunately a world leader in second-hand smoke exposure.”

I can personally attest that in China people routinely smoke in elevators, bathrooms, and often while standing in front of non-smoking signs. Furthermore, Fong’s study shows that the government’s attempts to reduce tobacco consumption over the past seven years have utterly failed. Could its failure to curb smoking be linked to its direct involvement in the cigarette industry? Strangely enough, perhaps not.

China did join the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005, and in accordance with FCTC policy, China banned terms such as “mild” or “low tar” on cigarette packaging. Back in October, Bochen Han noted that China has been passing tougher tobacco laws for years, including banning officials from public smoking and passing a series of bans on tobacco advertising. But, she says, as with so many things in China, “enforcement is haphazard.”

Another problem is education. A 2009 survey found that only 68 percent of Chinese smokers believe smoking can cause lung cancer (whereas over 90 percent of smokers in Western countries are aware of that risk). Few therefore quit, unless they become ill. Health officials aren’t setting a great example either. As one Kunming surgeon commented, “Smoking is such a big part of being a doctor here. The director of our hospital smokes. The party-secretary smokes. The chair of my department smokes. And whenever I walk into the duty office, most of my colleagues are smoking.”

Until enforcement and education improve, one has to wonder how bad things must get before public opinion changes.

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