Puff, the Chinese Dragon
This year the Chinese will puff away 2 trillion (2,000,000,000,000) cigarettes, an average of four sticks a day for each of the 1.3 billion people in the country.
In the West, this figure would set alarm bells ringing. In China, where Health Minister Gao Qiang is often seen with a cigarette in his hand, and official meetings usually start with the polite offering of a pack of cigarettes, smoking is virtually a non-issue.
China consumes more cigarettes than any other nation on earth. One third of its population are active smokers. The others are mostly passive inhalers of second hand smoke. More than 60% of Chinese men smoke; the women are fast catching up, and babies and toddlers are sometimes fed opium-laced cigarettes to keep them from crying.
China also tops the world in smoking-related deaths. About 1.2 million die each year from cancers of the lung, tongue, gums, and floor of the mouth; cardiovascular disease and emphysema, among others.
China’s policymakers ignore the evil of smoking for a simple reason—99% of China’s cigarette makers are state-owned. Last year cigarette sales generated RMB 240 billion ($30 billion) in revenue. Tobacco accounts for 10% of all taxes collected.
Tobacco plants are a major source of employment in many regions. They also provide corrupt officials with funds for personal enjoyment: gambling, whoring, buying property and cars and sending children overseas to be educated.
Last August, China announced measures to control smoking. Its tiny anti-smoking lobby, the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control (CATC), is now working on ways to implement the controls.
It is unlikely to get anywhere. The CATC is small and toothless. Neither the government nor the cigarette makers take it seriously.
“Chinese people don’t really care if smoking damages their health,” said one tobacco industry official. “To them, smoking is like eating. When we reduced the level of tar, the only complaints we got… were that the cigarettes weren’t strong enough.” He has reason to be complacent. In 2005, the year China promised to stem smoking, sale of cigarettes rose 14% in the country. This year the tobaccco industry, without irony, said it is expecting healthy growth.