A large conference on lung cancer was held in Beijing over the weekend, focusing not on the popular topic of China’s heavy air pollution, but rather smoking. Over the past 30 years, deaths in China due to lung cancer has increased by 465 percent. The theme of this year’s conference, according to CCTV, was “Controlling tobacco and promoting the early detection and treatment of lung cancer”. Lung cancer has now replaced liver cancer as the leading form of cancer in China, responsible for 22.7 percent of cancer related Chinese deaths. China now joins the US and many other nations where lung cancer claims the most lives that any other cancer.
China produces 1.7 billion cigarettes per year, 2.5 times as many as the US, the world’s second largest cigarette manufacturer after China. Of the 1.1 billion smokers around the world, 350 million are Chinese (1 in 3 of the world’s smokers, while only 1 in 6 of the world’s population). Although there are some smoking restrictions in public places, they are often not observed. Without changes made in cancer prevention and detection programs, the current 1 million deaths due to smoking related illnesses in China each year will rise to 2 million by 2025, and 3 million by 2050.
Rising concern on the impacts of smoking are particularly interesting in light of the anecdotes we read for class from Hessler that discussed smoking culture in China, its importance in interactions, and its value in social status.
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I think a major part of the problem is that a lot of the tobacco companies are state-owned. For this reason, the massive revenues that these companies are bringing in for the states are making anti-smoking campaigns extremely difficult. However, if annual deaths from cigarettes continue to rise as projected, then China will need to create new policies for tobacco consumption. 3.5 million deaths in 2030, which is not far away at all, is a ridiculously high number, and no revenue from tobacco companies can counteract the economic cost of lost lives and family grieving.
I agree with Jack, if most of the tobacco companies are state-owned and their profits are used to fund government expenditures or just simply the lavish lifestyles of party members then further regulations or anti-smoking campaigns may be difficult to implement. Moreover, as we read in Hessler, smoking is a significant component of business—as well as Baiju. Different cigarettes provide a different meaning about both the situation and the person. As a result of the cultural dependence on smoking and the state-owned profit generation derived from the product, it is not surprising that China accounts for one out of every three smokers globally and only one out of every six people globally. Additionally, other high population growth markets have lower income per capita, reducing discretionary expenditure capabilities, such as cigarettes—bolstering China’s smoking population on a relative basis to the rest of the world.
This is definitely a huge problem. I’m not sure how China could really get around it. As David and Jack both pointed out, since the companies are owned by the government, they lack any real incentive to stop selling. Furthermore, cigarettes are so integral to Chinese culture, I can’t really see this problem decreasing. I doubt that many Chinese people will start smoking e-cigarettes.
To try to squeeze out a little optimism, perhaps as more of the population in China continues to grow wealthier there may be hope in decreasing the prevalence of cigarette smoking. Drawing example from the United States, cigarette consumption is much more prevalent among lower income individuals. Partially due to government initiatives and partially due to increased awareness and interest in health among wealthier Americans, cigarette smoking has been going out of vogue. Because tolerance and dependence of nicotine is typically induced prior to the age of 20, increasing cigarette prices to make them out of reach financially for children, as well as banning smoking in many public areas so children don’t see it around them are among the factors that have significantly reduced rates in the US.
Perhaps the initial fad that incorporated smoking into business practices and other social interactions in China comes from the former popularity and positive associations smoking held in the West that Chinese emulated to show modernity. Now that it is so out of fashion in the US, after a bit of lag, the trend of health consciousness and disdain for smoking will catch on in China, as businessmen will demonstrate being in the know by copying the new trends.
However, looking at countries like Japan where smoking has been linked to decreasing suicide rates, smoking is very much not out of vogue except perhaps among small pockets of young people with heavy interactions with foreigners (like my classmates while studying abroad). Europe too has been having a hard time shaking the smoking habit.
On the decrease in US smoking rates: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/25/why-smoking-rates-are-at-new-lows/?_r=0
On Europe and smoking bans: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB123085631602247715
On a more gloomy note… Might it be profitable for China as a whole to continue encouraging smoking at the expense of its citizens longevity? If its citizens continue to get cancers which reduce life expectancy, then less money needs to go towards programs to take care of the elderly… China can simply let their elderly die off and not reduce health care costs. Sadly moral issues do not always line up with political and financial decisions. As seen through the countless human rights violations China commits, what is best for the party… might not be best for it’s people.
I think this issue is contingent upon the role China takes in providing medical care for its citizens. If it increases care, becoming more like the Amero/European governments which mainly spend on providing care, an insurance company, they will raise taxes on cigarettes in order to pay for medical costs. Since medical costs increase with smoking, it makes sense to recoup costs there, and it is what most of Canada and Europe does. That would be one way for smoking rates to decline.
The other is social pressure. If the same dynamics occur in China as the US, grassroots efforts and a few legal decisions might help to sway opinions. The body of medical evidence is pretty clear once you look at it. If people turn against it, the shift will be pretty rapid. I am from the heart of Tobacco country, Lorillard is headquartered in my hometown and RJR is headquartered a town over. Despite that presence, even this area has not lagged others in kicking smoking out of restaurants and public places. Once public opinion turns, the Chinese tobacco SOEs will have little choice but to sell fewer cigarettes and comply with increased regulation.