When your taxi driver casually offers you a cigarette, Toto, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
When I first arrived in Xi’an, China, it felt like a time machine had transported me back into a bygone era.
Rampant smoking was one of the first signs that I’d stepped straight into the 50’s, the 60’s or even the 70’s. One thing was clear, it wasn’t the naughties! In most western countries in 2017, smoking is discouraged with vehement education programs, smoking bans and ugly, graphic images on cigarette packets, that cost you an arm and a leg!
In downtown Xi’an, smoking is still the ultimate height of fashion!
Except well, it’s mainly men – walking around, their stomach paunch on show with pride; the ubiquitous cigarette dangling from their pursed lips. It’s as much a part of their daily routine as applying deodorant. Oh wait….
The numbers are startling. A 2015 study put 68 per cent of the male population as smokers. That’s two thirds of men puffing away like there’s no tomorrow. And perhaps there isn’t, for many.
It’s big business for the country. China’s currently the world’s largest consumer and producer of tobacco with 350 million smokers. The world’s largest cigarette manufacturer is the state-owned ‘China Tobacco’ – who’s nearest competitor is Philip Morris and he doesn’t even come close.
The government is making a killing, literally.
In the early days, I watched on with amusement (and mild horror) as men and the humble but deadly cigarette seemed mutually exclusive. Bike riders and their cigarette dangling precariously as they weave in and out of the bedlam traffic…a look of James Dean minus the muscles and ripped shirt.
I watched as middle aged men were shuffled out of the hotel by a certain hotelier for lighting up in the lobby, the lifts or even the toilets. They’d grunt in response as if it was the most ludicrous thing in the world to be told not to smoke. Who’s the white guy shouting in his broken Chinese, “Bu keyi Chou Yan!” “Don’t smoke!”
I watched as my driver, hurriedly stubbed out his cigarette, moments before I approached….I can imagine he was more than happy when I took long enough on the school drop-off for him to park himself at the bus stop and inhale, before a quick obligatory snooze, (if he was left in a car for longer than five minutes).
When it rained, he didn’t even bother getting out, instead, hanging out the window….his smoke billowing into the already polluted air…and stinking out the hotel car.
The smell of stale cigarettes was a permanent fixture for most of my China days.
I’d see bus drivers sucking back as they roared around town, sometimes with a bus load of school kids on board.
And of course there have been those crazy stories reported on social media, showing little kids in China’s villages smoking!
My expat friend’s six year old is always pretending to smoke, because well it’s what you do… and it’s what we did as kids in the 70’s.
When I queried one of the drivers about the severe pollution levels in China and whether or not he ever feels the need to wear a mask, he just laughed, albeit sheepishly. Why wear a mask when you smoke a pack a day. True that.
It’s a cultural calamity, men everywhere are smoking. They hang about on corner streets, the cigarette a constant companion. They meander down alleyways, and gather around small rickety tables on miniature chairs playing mahjong, the cigarette a necessary accessory.
Street cleaners in their orange is the new black uniforms, a broom made of spindly twigs in one hand, a cigarette in the other.
At weddings or special events, I was always amused by the little bowl of ‘free flow’ cigarettes perched invitingly on the bar tables out the front. “Would you like a canapé or a cigarette with that?”
In fact it’s considered a sign of bad manners not to offer someone a cigarette when you light up.
It’s still a perfectly acceptable form of “Guan xi” – given as a gift on many occasions in the professional world. Or as a bribe. Visiting the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, it’s 35 degrees and we are wandering aimlessly trying to find our way to a tourist hot spot. A hawker has his goods unravelled on the footpath to capture the weary tourist. We watch a golf buggy carrying two solemn police officers pull up… there’s an exchange of Chinese, I miss (obviously) but it wasn’t too hard to get the picture, “We’ll let this slide if you can give us a few ciggies, mate!” The hawker looked like he had just had a visit from the President himself.
One officer saw me looking and attempted to pretend they weren’t about to take cigarettes in exchange for turning a blind eye. But as they drove off I saw them ferreting the cigarettes out of sight.
Compared to China’s puffing billy males, just three percent of women smoke. Scarily though, the number is increasing amongst young women as smoking is seen as more glamorous and sophisticated.
Some, particularly the older generations, comfort themselves with the popular Chinese myth, that smoking is somehow less hazardous for Asian people.
The powers of ‘Mo gu’ – a black Chinese mushroom are still highly praised. A Chinese Traditional Medicine doctor tells me it’s because they are cold and black and nurture the lungs like duck’s blood.
Cigarettes can be acquired at a much lower price than in most other countries, the cheapest pack is seven kuai (that’s around US74c) so there’s little to dissuade a smoker from buying them. Mind you, that price will also get you a bowl of noodles for dinner, so it’s all relevant.
The Lancet medical journal warns if the current smoking rates prevail two million Chinese will die by 2030.
China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission is planning to implement a nation-wide ban on smoking in public places by the end of this year.
But still, the World Health Organisation says only 25 per cent of Chinese adults have a comprehensive understanding of the health risks of smoking.
It seems local doctors are among them. Figures show 60 per cent of doctors smoke, some while treating you!
Advertising in mass media, in public places is (theoretically) banned and government party officials are banned from smoking during official activities — but that’s where it ends.
In 16th Century China, tobacco was virtually unknown. In 1637 the last Ming Dynasty Emperor declared anyone caught selling tobacco would have their head removed.
While that’s clearly taking things a little too far, someone needs to butt in and give China’s people some serious education.
But just like a lot of bad habits in China, it’s going to take a little while for them to catch on and butt out.
This is China.
**This is an excerpt from my book (working title) #ThisisChina — stay tuned for more. 😉