Desperate People in China Are Buying Cans of Air Imported From Canada

Residents in the smog-plagued nation would rather inhale the scent of pine than the toxic odor of car exhaust.
Morning commuters wear masks as they walk near Beijing's central business district. (Photo: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)
Dec 17, 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.

When it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, climate activists who showed up in Paris for COP21 hoped negotiators would understand that desperate times call for desperate measures. Well, in the case of people in China who are fed up with inhaling polluted air, it seems desperate times call for buying air imported from the wilds of Canada.

On the heels of the first-ever government-issued red pollution alert in Beijing and ongoing smog problems in other major cities, people in the Asian nation are snapping up cans of Vitality Air.

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“Our first shipment of 500 bottles of fresh air were sold in four days,” the Edmonton, Canada–based company’s cofounder Moses Lam told The Telegraph. Lam, who works as a banker, said Vitality Air was born after he and Troy Paquette managed to sell a plastic sandwich bag of air on eBay for $160 as a joke. “That’s when we realized there is a market for this,” Lam said.

In a place where the air pollution is so bad that people have been told to stay home from work and school—and those who do go out have taken to wearing masks—it’s not hard to see why inhaling Vitality Air might be appealing.

“The sun is rising on the horizon. Sunlight peeks through the trees as you move towards the opening in the trailhead,” reads a description on the Vitality Air website of the location in Banff National Park in Alberta, where the company collects its air. Meanwhile, people in China have been dealing with air so smoggy that some days the sun is completely obscured—to the point that last year the government put up an LED billboard of a fake glowing sun in Beijing.

“The pristine wilderness is now behind as you stand on a rocky outcrop, taking in the soaring mountain peaks in front of you. You breathe heavy, filling your lungs with the crisp mountain air, with the slight scent of pine,” the website continues.

Pine—not the scent of vehicle exhaust, burning coal, or noxious factory pollution.

Harrison Wang, the company’s representative in China, told The Telegraph that the canisters—which cost $22 for 7.7 liters of air—are mostly being bought by well-off Chinese women. “In China, fresh air is a luxury, something so precious,” he said.

It’s tempting to give the folks buying Vitality Air a side eye, but consider this: Twenty years ago, bottled water wasn’t the ubiquitous commodity it is today. Fear of polluted water has helped spur bottled H2O sales, even though municipal tap water sources in the U.S. are safe. In comparison, in China, folks are actually breathing in air that’s legitimately toxic. A study released in August found that 4,000 people a day—1.6 million men, women, and children—die from inhaling dirty air. And it sure seems the founders of Vitality Air know what people want. As the company’s website reads: “No smog, no pollution, just nature and fresh clean air,”