Smoking in China is the cool thing to do, at least if you’re a man. With over 50% of the Chinese male population smoking, it’s as trendy as smoking in the U.S. during the 1950s. You’d think the abhorrent air pollution in China might make people think twice about all the carcinogens they’re inhaling. So why are so many people smoking in China, and why is it only the men?
Sitting in a restaurant in China, there’s no ‘smoking section’ because the entire restaurant is the smoking section. To your left and right, Chinese businessmen lighting up after a long day of corporate drudgery. I guess for some people, the air can never be dirty enough.
It’s annoying to be surrounded by so many smoking people. It’s like living in the past, before people knew that cancer is a direct result of chronic cigarette consumption. In terms of world history, China is decades behind the smoking bandwagon.
Check out this 4-stage model that describes a pattern of cigarette-smoking in developed countries (source: Lopez et al., 1994). China is in stage 2, where the number of people smoking is rising quickly. America, Western Europe and Australia have already reached stage 4, where smoking tapers down considerably while cigarette-caused mortality is at its peak.
In stage 2, tons of Chinese men are becoming addicted to cigarettes. In a few decades, disease and death will skyrocket, according to this 4-stage pattern of cigarette addiction and mortality. Hopefully, then, Chinese guys will stop lighting up cigarettes next to babies in elevators and restaurants.
There’s a lot of pressure to smoke if you’re a man in modern Chinese society. At business meetings, it’s rude to turn down a toast or cigarette from a superior. I imagine that phrases like “be a man” are common lines of persuasion in Chinese business banquets, like something you’d hear in a crappy American teenage movie.
China is the largest consumer of cigarettes in the world so it’s no wonder that China Tobacco is such a massive, state-owned corporation.
Today it’s uncommon to see a man turn down a cigarette in China. But even more uncommon than seeing a non-smoking man is seeing a smoking woman. It’s estimated that 61% of Chinese men are smokers, while only 4.2% of Chinese women smoke (source: World Health Organization, 2008).
Are Chinese women just smarter than Chinese men?
It’s my opinion that gender inequality plays a big role in this cigarette consumption gap, but in this case it works heavily in the women’s favor. It’s considered unwomanly to smoke cigarettes. For men, you aren’t cool unless you smoke. That’s a healthy advantage for women if I’ve ever seen one.
But even this huge gender smoking gap will likely close, according to the chart I showed you earlier. It’s a predictable pattern that hasn’t reached women yet. It’s likely that tobacco companies will begin targeting Chinese women to gain even more profit and it’ll just add to the epidemic even further.
To all the Chinese women still living a healthy, tobacco-free existence: please don’t submit to the pressure of big tobacco corporations in the coming decades.
To all the Chinese men chain-smoking cigarettes in restaurants while I’m trying to enjoy my steamed dumplings: 你他妈的 (nǐ tā mā de)!