Friday, October 10, 2008

Cigarettes are China's new opium

It is truly scary how widespread smoking is in this country. Just a few anecdotes from southwest China: on a minibus from Dali to Lijiang I was surrounded by smokers, forcing me to open my window and suck at the night air; here at an Internet bar I'm again surrounded by smoke, and while I can usually bear secondhand smoke without complaint, I feel nauseous right now; there are, believe it or not, ashtrays screwed knee-high on the stalls of the public bathrooms, as if some people really can't wait five minutes to pull up their pants before lighting up.

Seven years ago a BBC story, citing a British study, claimed "smoking could eventually kill a third of all young Chinese men if nothing is done to get them to drop the habit." That may be overstating it, but the sentence nails the essence of China's problem: lack of education. The "if nothing is done part" speaks to the authority's reluctance to tell its people smoking can cause disease, a fact that folks overwhelmingly deny. And why spend money to educate people? The tobacco industry's a cash cow, where, according to a 2007 Bloomberg article, generated "$31 billion, in taxes in 2005, according to a study at a Beijing University research center." As Bloomberg put it: "China, which consumes a third of the world's tobacco with a fifth of the population, must mediate between cutting health care costs and its financial stake in tobacco." In other words, cigarettes aren't going anywhere, even if it costs the country $5 billion per year in medical bills (31 > 5). (Although this article from Shanghai's Crazy English website claims it cost the country $32.5 billion in 2006.)

I don't know what's to be done. Usually I put my faith in the younger generation, but they're as addicted as anyone. This might be a pandemic with no relief in sight.

1 comment:

trevelyan said...

Lung cancer is a small price to pay for not having to smell the men's washrooms in my old dorm at Tsinghua.