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Smoker's Contrition in Beijing

By Darwin Wally T. Wee a freelance journalist on exchange with the Economic Observer.


An old man enjoying his traditonal-style tobacco smoke at a restaurant in Chengdu City, Sichuan province, China. Source: Darwin Wally T. Wee

Days before arriving in Beijing to start my 10-month long posting, one of my minor worries was how fast I could adjust to the "strict policy" of the Chinese government towards smokers.

That was in April 2011 when I read a news report that the Chinese Ministry of Health had issued a directive against smoking in public place. The policy was hailed by many sectors including international organizations which had previously criticized China for turning a blind eye to the habit.

The policy, which was implemented the following month, prohibits smoking in at least 28 types of public venues; these include restaurants, theaters, shopping centers, hotels, and bars. "No smoking" signs should also be placed in these locations, and require owners of these establishments to employ at least one person to monitor and reprimand smokers.

To strictly enforce the policy, the Health Ministry imposed hefty fines for violators ranging from 1, 000 yuan up to wallet draining 30, 000 yuan.

As a smoker, the policy is a warning for me not to indiscriminately smoke anywhere, on the other hand, I see it as a way to help me reduce, if not totally kick, my bad habit.

Not until I finally arrived in Beijing two months after the implementation did I see liquor and cigarette shops outnumbering pharmacies and other drug stores.

As months followed, the policy seemed to be lax. Lighting and puffing cigarettes in restaurants are common. You can see ashstrays in public toilets alongside the bowls of male urinals. Staying at a hotel, it is also ordinary to find a box of matchsticks and ashstrays as well as condoms and other foodstuffs in your bedroom.

What surprises me more, even inside a hospital toilet, I saw an old guy relieving himself in a door-less toilet cubicle puffing a cigarette unmindful of the cloud of smoke he is generating.

During a brief basic human rights workshop in Bangkok last year, I learned that "one man's rights end at another man's nose," but I guess this time, the old person's smoke went up my nose and made all its way through my lungs and eventually killed my brain cells. However, I must admit I am also guilty of this, too, since my roommate has to turn on our kitchen fan to put out the smoke in our apartment every time I light a cigarette.

As what my favorite celebrity blogger in the Philippines said, "smoking is also like playing with firecrackers and karaoke: it's only fun if you're the one doing it. You hate it when other people smoke in your presence-and specially when they don't have the courtesy of offering you a stick."

I understand the strong culture of cigarettes here. Living in a highly competitive, fast-changing country, and an environment where everybody seems to be smoking, you would really end up lighting one, especially after a stressful day.

China, after all, is the largest consumer, with about 320 million smokers, as well as the largest producer, of cigarettes in the world, according to the World Health Organization

Even famous Chinese leaders particularly revolutionary Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping are known to be heavy smokers. Visiting China's museums, one can see in those humongous and imposing portraits of the two leaders holding cigarettes while talking to peasants in farmlands.

Buying cigarettes in a shop will give you a vast variety of brands that are made across China. Being a smoker in China, you should be mindful because your cigarette brand can reflect your character or personality, too.

Among the most popular brands are Zhonghua, Panda, and Zhongnanhai. By comparison, cigarettes here are expensive compared to the Philippines - my home country. On average cigarettes here are 10 yuan, which is the price of high-class cigarettes in the Philippines. In China, at least a quarter of a smoker's salary goes to buying cigarettes, a news report said. Despite cigarettes being expensive, the number of smokers continually grows. But what the heck? As they say: "No amount of excise tax will make smokers stop."

High-class cigarettes, along with Baijiu, are considered precious gifts in China, this of course comes with an expensive tag price. A carton of 10 packs could even reach more than 2,000 yuan. In Peter Hessler's book entitled "Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory," he writes that it is customary for Chinese businessmen and perhaps government officials to give pricey cigarettes to express gratitude or seal business deals.

I once attended a Chinese wedding and to my delight one of their give-aways was expensive cigarettes. But honestly, it's quite hard to distinguish between mid-range to class-A cigarettes without reading the labels. The flavor seems to be same.

Cigarettes are regarded so highly that last year, the centennial celebration of the Tsinghua University, one of the China's prestigious schools, grabbed headlines after a cigarette company made a special limited edition commemorating the school. Many people were surprised at how pricey a box of cigarettes costs, about 10,000 yuan ($1,587). Later, University officials denied that they ordered the company to produce the school's cigarette-box design. 

However, this culture has a price to pay. Although the Chinese government earns billions of dollars from tobacco taxes, it also sheds billions of dollars to subsidize government hospitals and healthcares due to the steady increase of lung problems and other respiratory illnesses, experts said.

A recent article published by the state-owned newspaper China Daily reported that as many as 1.2 million Chinese smokers die every year due to lung cancer and smoking-related illness. About 740 million are exposed to secondhand smoke. This is on top of the air pollution issue that is also killing hundreds of Chinese yearly.

Another report said  it is estimated that about 8,000 Chinese will die each day by the year 2050, a big leap from the current 3,000 deaths per day.

The lost of productivity due to smoking-related health problems is endangering China's economic growth, too.

Yang Gonghuan, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has said that related costs incurred by smoking far exceed the tobacco industry's contribution in terms of profits and jobs.

What is more alarming is the increase of young Chinese who are starting to puff cigarettes.

The Chinese Association on Tobacco Control said "15.8 percent of high school students smoke habitually, and 22.5 percent would consider trying it" among 40, 000 students surveyed in 2011.

Further, the same group also reported that 98% of the 800 surveyed universities in China failed to implement the smoke-free environment in campuses.

Almost a year after the smoking ban took effect, Beijing said it would rewrite its smoking ban policy particularly on the enforcement because it "barely had any effect," according to Suo Chao of the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control.

Chinese government officials and non-government groups admitted that the fight against smoking is a long battle.

Misconceptions about the health dangers of smoking is seen as one of the most major reasons why mainstream Chinese society accepts the habit.


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