Here’s the Terrible Habit Killing 30 Percent of This Country’s Young Men

They’re not called ‘cancer sticks’ for nothing.

(Photo: Greg Baker/Getty Images)

Oct 10, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

With more than 1.3 billion residents, China enjoys a reputation as the world’s most populous nation. But the results of a new study published Friday in the British medical journal The Lancet suggest that that designation might not last for much longer—all thanks to cigarettes.

There are 300 million smokers in China, and an astounding 1 million people die every year from the effects of cancer. But according to the study, given the popularity of cigarettes the number of deaths is projected to jump to 2 million by 2030 and to 3 million by 2050.

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Hardest hit will be men: 68 percent of young Chinese men light up, and at least half of them are expected to die from the habit. That means one in three Chinese men will die from smoking. Besides addiction to nicotine, a significant challenge in getting them to give up the habit is that smoking has become a cultural expectation for men.

When I lived in Guangzhou, about an hour north of Hong Kong, in the mid 1990s, a friend purchased four cartons of Marlboro cigarettes as a present for her father at Chinese New Year. It was considered a prestigious gift, and he subsequently chain-smoked them throughout the family’s celebrations. When he wasn’t inhaling, he made sure to point out to his friends and family members that his daughter had a job good enough to purchase such a pricey brand of smokes for him.

Twenty years later, things haven’t changed much. “A common greeting among men is to offer a cigarette. A carton of cigarettes is a popular networking gift,” wrote Zhuang Chen in an op-ed on BBC.com. “Declining an offer of a cigarette is seen as a mark of losing face. It is custom for a subordinate to light up for his boss,” he continued.

In recent years, health advocates in China have attempted to curb smoking. A strict ban on smoking in public places went into effect in Beijing on June 1. It outlaws lighting up in bars, restaurants, shopping malls, and hospitals, and in the workplace. However, previous get-tough bans on smoking in public in Beijing were widely ignored.

What also makes efforts to get people to stop smoking hard is that the Chinese government turns a profit from the habit.

“Complicating any efforts to reduce the public health burden of tobacco is the fact that China is the world’s largest grower, manufacturer, and consumer of tobacco and has the largest workforce devoted to tobacco farming, manufacturing, and sales,” wrote the authors of The Lancet study.

The average Chinese citizen begins smoking at age 11 and forks over plenty of cash for a pack of smokes over a lifetime. According to the study’s authors, China National Tobacco Corporation, which is a government monopoly, “provides over 7 percent of the central government’s annual revenue through both taxes and net income.”

Still, if effective smoking cessation measures can be implemented, particularly ones targeted toward young people, “the growing epidemic of premature death from tobacco can be halted and then reversed, as in other countries,” they wrote.