China is smoking itself to death. It is the largest consumer and producer of tobacco related goods, and it is responsible for producing 42% of the cigarettes in the world
As my friends and I were taking the night train from Haerbin to Beijing, we had some trouble sleeping: Cigarette smoke was spreading throughout the car and was depriving us of fresh air. We decided to do something about it and went to seek help with one of the train managers; The manager looked confused when we told him that the smoke was bothering us. We urged him to come back with us to our car and to see for himself that the smoke is too thick to bare. After much nudging, he finally came along, but was reluctant to help. Ironically, one of my friends distinctively noticed a “NO SMOKING” sign hanging on the wall of the car, yet when she made the manager aware of it, he simply took it off the wall and left.
Watch: Smoking in China Is Getting Worse
Smoking in China is a widespread phenomenon: China is the largest consumer and producer of tobacco related goods, and it is responsible for producing 42% of the cigarettes in the world. While currently there are more than 350 million people who smoke in China, the number of smokers is continuously on the rise: According to a joint report by Yang Gonghuan, vice-director of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention and by Hu Angang, director of the Research Center for Contemporary China at Tsinghua University, titled: “Tobacco Control and the Future of China”, China has seen a 40% increase in tobacco output during the past five years, and it is expected that by 2030 over 3.5 million people could die in China from smoking-related illnesses, unless the government takes drastic measures to prevent the spreading phenomenon.
Smoking in China is a Serious Problem
Realizing the grave situation, the Ministry of Health issued a formal decision on May 20th, 2009, to completely ban smoking in all health administration offices and in medical facilities by the year 2011. Despite the major progress this law allows, China still lags behind western countries in terms of smoking regulations. Furthermore, despite what seems to be stricter smoking laws, these laws are rarely enforced, and smoking is still prominent in many private and public places in China.
Attacking the issue of Smoking in China, Beijing is facing multiple problems: Primarily, the government is reluctant to regulate, because tax revenue from tobacco produced goods is a major element in government income: 6 percent of the tax revenue that is received by the government derives from the tobacco industry. Furthermore, the tobacco industry employes some 20 million tobacco planters and approximately 250,000 workers. It seems, therefore, that the government lacks the incentive to reduce the number of smokers.
Second, the exchange of gifts is a cultural element that carries great importance in China. As gifts, tobacco products are considered popular among business colleagues and among friends. As a Laowai, a foreigner who is living in China, I have encountered this problem myself, and I have always tried to avoid smoking in China (I am not a smoker). Nevertheless, in some occasions, when people smoke and the doors and windows are closed, I unwillingly become a second hand smoker.
Smoking in China is becoming more popular, yet authorities do not fully appreciate the gravity of the situation: According to a survey conducted by WHO (World Health Organization) in 2008, despite rising taxes on cigarettes, the proportion of tax on cigarette prices in China is one of the lowest in the world: Only 37%. To compare, it is 80% in the U.K, 76% in Germany and 54% in India. Analysis indicates that tax benefits, although high, are mitigated by tobacco-related medical expenditure and loss of productivity, which much like tobacco use, are rising explosively. Therefore, it is evidently in the favor of Beijing to deal with the smoking problem as soon as possible by enforcing stricter laws. Until then, laowais and Chinese people alike will continue to suffer from lack of fresh air in restaurants, trains and office buildings.