In China, smoking's the big thing

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A nation of smokers

Everyone knows that China, in addition to being the Next Big Thing, is the most populous nation on Earth. But the Chinese seem to be doing their best for population control by killing themselves off. China is the most smoke-filled nation in the world, the largest consumer and producer of tobacco. Its 350 million smokers account for a third of the world's total. The country produces 42 per cent of all cigarettes on the planet. Sixty percent of all males over 15 smoke. (Only 4 per cent of all women.) About 1.2 million of the 5 million people in the world who die annually of smoking-related diseases are Chinese. The World Health Organization predicts that 100 million young men in China will die prematurely because of smoking. The bleak stats come from the China Daily (, the nation's English language daily, which wants some action. Good luck.

Can I bum a smoke, Doc?

From the AP

While China has proclaimed that the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be smoke-free, it has done little to discourage smoking. Chinese cigarettes are cheap -- as little as 30 cents a pack. And despite an official ban on sales to kids under 18, children can easily buy cigarettes. The number of Chinese smokers is growing by three million a year. It gets worse. Anyone looking for inspiration in the medical community will be hard pressed to find it: 60 percent of male doctors are smokers. And as many as 90 percent of all smokers believe their habit has little effect on their health. Or that it is good for them.

Good for them?

Last November, The Globe and Mail (Toronto) reported some exciting medical news from China: Smoking is great for your health! Cigarettes are an excellent way to prevent ulcers, reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease, relieve schizophrenia, boost your brain cells, speed up your thinking, improve your reactions and increase your working efficiency! (No word on erectile dysfunction, but you have to believe it helps there, too!) As for those depressing warnings about lung cancer, not to worry. You're more likely to get cancer from kitchen smoke than from smoking!

"This is the bizarre parallel universe of China's state-owned tobacco monopoly, the world's most successful cigarette-marketing agency," The Globe and Mail reported. "If you believe the Web site of the tobacco monopoly, cigarettes are a kind of miracle drug: solving your health problems, helping your lifestyle, strengthening the equality of women, and even eliminating loneliness and depression." Such preposterous thoughts are widely believed in China.

Side effects may include death

Smoking is considered social custom in China, rather than a dirty, nasty habit pursued by social outcasts, as smokers in the West tend to be viewed by non-smokers. In a 2004 study, Zhenfeng Pan of the University of Louisville concluded: "In China, smoking serves an important social function: the connection builder. When people meet each other, it is a custom for everyone to offer cigarettes to signal respect and hospitality. Among known friends or acquaintances, cigarette offering is equally prevalent and important, and serves the function of reinforcing friendships or relationships. For a non-smoker, it is very easy to suffer the agony and even humiliation of not accepting someone's polite but pushy offer of a cigarette because Chinese culture accepts repeated offerings of cigarettes as a gesture of hospitality."

The late Marlboro man waits

No surprise that Western tobacco companies are looking with vultures eyes at the Chinese market. Although it's controlled by the Chinese monopoly, Western tobacco companies are convinced it will soon crack, especially now that China is a member of the World Trade Organization and is obliged to reduce its tariffs on foreign cigarettes. The valuable taxes paid by local industry have helped render the anti-smoking movement, a bane of tobacco companies in the West, virtually powerless. "In China today, the economy comes first and everything else is secondary, including health care," Jean Couture, a Quebec surgeon who has been travelling to China since 1990 for cancer-education programs told The Globe and Mail. "You wonder if anyone in the government is conscious of how great the smoking problem is. There's no public education program. Within 20 years, China could have the majority of all smoking deaths in the world."

Yes, but she only started at 108

Last month, a smoking-rights Web site,, ran an approving story about a Chinese granny who was celebrating her 111th birthday in Dalian, Liaoning Province. "Yang is very healthy, and doctors say her heart is as energetic as that of a 60-year-old. Yang loves eating seafood and sweets; she smokes and drinks the odd glass of red wine. She is also known for her kindness and rarely argues with others." We prefer to think it's the odd glass of red wine that's pulling her through.

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