Thursday, February 25, 2010

My anti-smoking rant

The problem about travelling in China is, of course, the Chinese—yes, those incessantly smoking, spitting, littering, loudly talking, pinky fingernail growing people who inhabit this country. Okay, I could ignore the spitting, step over the trash, put on my earphones to block out the chatter and look the other way when confronted with those ugly, yellow fingernails, but I can’t very well stop breathing. Yet smokers are everywhere in China, lighting up whenever they wish—on the streets, in parks, restaurants, hotel rooms, shopping malls, train stations, even on buses.

I had a hellish time on a recent trip traveling on a cramped bus from Changsha to Shauguan in Guangdong. The trip was over five hours, with frustrating traffic jams caused by many road accidents along the way (bad Chinese drivers?) And people were constantly smoking. In a crowded bus with all the windows closed. At one point, as the guy in front of me lit up, I abruptly stood up and reached over to open the window beside him. “Hey, I’ve got a kid here,” he protested. Indeed, he was carrying a baby in his arms, who must be no more than four or five months old. “Then why are you still smoking?” I snapped. As a compromise, he kept the window open a crack, but finished his cigarette. He did not smoke again for the rest of the trip. But it’s incredible that this guy, a new father, was worried about a blast of cold, fresh air harming his child, yet completely indifferent to the second hand smoke he was blowing in his baby’s face every few minutes. Is he that stupid and ignorant?

Then I thought, maybe this is some kind of conspiracy—I mean, with its vast resources and its influential propaganda machine, surely the Chinese government could be doing a lot more to curb smoking, enforce no smoking laws (if they existed: there are no smoking signs in most public facilities, which people blithely ignore without consequences), educate people about the harmful effects of smoking, increase cigarette prices (at less than 5 yuan a pack, Chinese cigarettes are among the cheapest in the world), all of which have proven to be effective in reducing smoking in the rest of the world. So why hasn’t it? The answer has to be money. Assuming that about half of the adult male population and 5% of the female smoke, there are approximately 350 million smokers in China (according to WHO estimates), and if each smoke a pack a day at 5 yuan a pack, we’re talking about a 1.75 billion yuan a day industry, all of which state owned, which means that unlike in most countries where the government only earn a tax on tobacco sales, the Chinese state gets all of the 1.75 billion yuan a day in revenue.

Because health care has to be paid for by the individual in China, and most of the harmful effects of smoking do not show up until middle age, past the prime for most of the low-skilled workers who make up the labor force, the social costs of smoking is, for the government (as opposed to the smokers’ families), minimal. So the government can sit back and enjoy the financial bonanza that 350 million tobacco addicts bring. You can forget about Colombian cartels, Golden Triangle warlords, the Talibans, the Chinese government is the single largest drug pusher on the planet today. By creating an environment that makes it easy and socially acceptable to smoke (look at the fine examples that long tome smokers such as Mao and Deng have set), and by making tobacco affordable and readily available, China has the largest smoking population of any country in the world. According to statistics, half of the 350 million people will die preventable, premature deaths as a result of their addiction, more than the population of Japan and South Korea combined. And this does not include all the victims of second hand smoke that they bring down with them. Do I smell a class action negligence suit?

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