Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Smoking in China, From Restaurants to Primary Schools

In an earlier post I highlighted a Chinese bachelor celebrating his upcoming marriage. Although his red bra was unusual, it was not surprising to seem him offering free cigarrettes to people. Sharing cigarettes is common in a variety of social settings and smoking is a regular part of life for many in China. According to findings reported by Gallup in February of this year:
Three in 10 Chinese said they smoke regularly (25%) or occasionally (5%), according to Gallup surveys conducted shortly after China's ban on smoking in public places took effect last May. This translates to roughly 320 million adults -- or more than the entire population of the United States -- and underscores the potential health crisis China faces as it tries to reduce an estimated 1 million smoking-related deaths each year in its country.
The results are especially striking when broken down by sex. 57% of men compared to 3% of women* say they smoke--a difference easy to believe based on casual observations of smoking behavior in China. But in part because the results reflect self-reported behavior, I would not be surprised if they underestimate the true number of smokers.

The harm smoking causes has not gone unnoticed in China. However, one could question the efforts to reduce smoking. For example, as reported in the Voice of America there are signs recent smoking bans would not win a prize for effectiveness:
... Angela Merriam of the Beijing-based China Policy organization says the new smoking ban is not being consistently enforced.

“The ban on smoking in public spaces is completely ineffective. For example, I have a student who did an informal survey of just over 60 establishments in China. Of those polled, almost 70 percent said they permit smoking. And while 80 percent had heard of the regulations, only 12 percent of people in the restaurants had heard of a fine for a violation of the regulation.”
Smoking break in Changsha (previously shared here)
Although I am not at all convinced the bans have been "completely ineffective", Merriam's informal survey feels roughly consistent with what I have seen in some Chinese cities. But I have also had the impression that the number of people smoking in public places is not as large as it was several years ago. Nonetheless, seeing people smoking in "no smoking" restaurants, hotel lobbies, and other public spaces remains part of a regular day for me. It is even not uncommon to see ashtrays within sight of no-smoking signs. Staff at one hotel told me they gave up trying to tell guests to stop smoking in the lobby and brought ashtrays out in a pragmatic move to avoid messes of cigarettes and ashes.

In addition to typical concerns regarding smoking, another health issue is a factor due to something else common in China: fake products. Several years ago, Te-Ping Chen in a fascinating article on Slate described the rather profitable production of fake cigarettes in Yunxiao county, Fujian province:
Ringed by thickly forested mountains, illicit cigarette factories dot the countryside, carved deeply into caves, high into the hills, and even buried beneath the earth. By one tally, some 200 operations are hidden in Yunxiao, a southwestern Fujian county about twice the area of New York City. Over the last 10 years, production of counterfeit cigarettes has soared in China, jumping eightfold since 1997 to an unprecedented 400 billion cigarettes a year—enough to supply every U.S. smoker with 460 packs a year. Once famed for its bright yellow loquat fruit, Yunxiao is the trade's heartland, the source of half of China's counterfeit production.

...inhaling the knockoff cigarettes may do even more damage than their genuine counterparts. Lab tests show that Chinese counterfeits emit higher levels of dangerous chemicals than brand-name cigarettes: 80 percent more nicotine and 130 percent more carbon monoxide, and they contain impurities that include insect eggs and human feces.
Although many fake cigarettes are sold abroad and continue to be a problem globally (recent examples in the U.S. and the U.K.), the challenges faced by Chinese smokers are particularly high:
The number of counterfeits flooding the domestic market is similarly off the charts. "Each of us has come up with our own strategy to deal with it by now," confided one Beijing smoker who refuses to buy at locations where he doesn't know the owner. On trains, conductors roam the aisles, industriously hawking 75-cent keychain lights that purportedly reveal fake packs.
I have spoken with small-store owners and smokers who employ a variety of their own strategies to ensure they sell or purchase non-counterfeit cigarettes. Sometimes it seems questionable whether their methods are highly reliable. Whatever the case, reducing the numbers of fake cigarettes being produced in China could have an impact both there and abroad.

Despite the already high numbers of smokers and the efforts to reduce smoking, tobacco companies continue to seek more customers in China. Although bans on cigarette advertising exist, tobacco companies work around them, even through their "charitable" acts. Last year, Malcolm Moore in The Telegraph noted some striking examples:
More than 100 primary schools in China are now sponsored by tobacco companies on the hunt for the next generation of smokers, according to antismoking campaigners.

The schools often bear the names of Chinese cigarette brands, such as Zhongnanhai or Liqun, over their gates and in some cases have slogans in the playground.

"Talent comes from hard work – Tobacco helps you become talented," says one slogan, in foot-high gilt letters, on the front of the Sichuan Tobacco Hope Primary School...

"Inside the schools, they often have branded uniforms and distribute cigarette-shaped sweets. Vendors near the school gates usually sell cigarettes one-by-one, rather than in packets," said Mrs Wu.
Moore also mentions that regulating the tobacco industry has proved challenging due to how it is administered by the government and its significant tax contributions.

It seems numerous hurdles must be overcome for smoking to be significantly reduced. In a later post, I will share one of my more rememberable experiences witnessing smoking in a non-smoking area. It relates to an attention-grabbing anti-smoking campaign conducted elsewhere in Asia which could possibly inspire new approaches in China.

*For a possible explanation as to why there are fewer women smokers in China and why the patterns have been "found almost no place else, except for nearby Asian countries such as Japan and Korea", see an article by Susan Rosegrant in the magazine for the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research here.

No comments:

Post a Comment