One of the joys of authoritarian government is having the power to order hoi polloi to do what’s good for them – or else. So why is China still smoking?
The west has spent most of my lifetime trying to tackle this problem: I was born around the time of the invention of second-hand smoke, but I was middle-aged by the time anyone took it seriously. Beijing doesn’t have that kind of time: more than 1m people a year are already dying from smoking, and that’s just the beginning. Many of those who started puffing when China began to get rich 30-odd years ago are only now starting to fall ill. And with cigarettes still costing as little as 50p a pack, even the most impecunious mainlander can afford enough smokes to kill them.
But Beijing knows it can’t pay the medical bills of the 300m who already smoke, let alone those coming up through the ranks. So it is finally trying to force more people to stop smoking – starting with government officials. They are no longer allowed to smoke in government offices, schools, hospitals or on public transport; and they aren’t allowed to use public money to give each other cigarettes as gifts (one of the most popular ways for civil servants to bribe each other). Every doctor in China has been ordered to ask every patient whether they smoke – and help with smoking cessation (a task made more difficult by the fact that 40-50 per cent of male doctors in China are themselves smokers).
As good central planners should, they last week decreed that provincial and national television channels would air a month’s worth of antismoking advertisements. ?If ever there was a problem that cried out for a totalitarian solution, this is it, right? Let them stop smoking – because we said so.
But human beings are oddly perverse creatures, and when it comes to consuming addictive substances they are perverse in spades. A startling number of Chinese claim they don’t even know how dangerous smoking is: most know it can cause lung cancer, but according to the World Health Organisation, three-quarters of Chinese don’t know that smoking can cause strokes, nearly half don’t know it causes heart disease, and two-thirds are unaware that sexual pleasure can also be a casualty.
Even some who know the risks, don’t take them seriously. “Chairman Mao [Zedong] smoked and Chairman Deng [Xiaoping] smoked and drank, and Deng lived into his 90s,” says Tommy Yu, who is spending his morning break catching a quick smoke outside the HSBC tower in Shanghai’s financial district. “I’ll quit when I’m 50,” he says, pointing out that he works long hours under intense stress and smoking helps him cope.
Lv Hanjing, director of the respiratory medicine department at Shanghai Tongji Hospital, thinks China these days is a very anxious place, and that is one reason why it’s hard to get people to stop smoking. Her hospital started a smoking cessation clinic in 2008, but nowadays very few people attend. A colleague who runs the clinic puts it simply: “Even though some people know very well that smoking one cigarette will shorten their life by 7 minutes, they are not willing to sacrifice the pleasure of smoking for the extra seven minutes.”
Indeed, smoking in China is still seen as one of the finer things in life: during last month’s tomb-sweeping festival, when mainlanders visit the graves of their ancestors, traditional gifts for the departed included not only paper replicas of Porsches or iPads but also paper cigarettes. At Chinese weddings, guests often toast the newlyweds by smoking a cigarette in celebration, as well as drinking a toast.
There are economic barriers to complicate the social, psychological and physical ones: profits from the state tobacco monopoly contribute more than 6 per cent to China’s annual budget every year – and Premier Li Keqiang’s brother is a senior official of the company.
Even so things are changing: smoke in public places has declined dramatically since I moved to Shanghai in 2008 – just about in line with the rise in air pollution. Gao Ming, who sells cigarettes in a migrant workers’ village on the edge of Shanghai, says very few people under the age of 30 buy his cigarettes – partly because they are so worried about the air pollution. Maybe tackling smoking won’t be that hard after all.
But air pollution? Now there’s a problem that won’t take orders, even from the Communist party.
然而，人类是固执得出奇的动物，当涉及到消耗可上瘾物质时，他们就变得非常执迷不悟了。数量多得惊人的中国人声称，他们甚至不知道吸烟的危害有多大：多数人知道吸烟可能导致肺癌，但世界卫生组织(World Health Organisation)称，四分之三的中国人不知道吸烟可能会导致中风，近一半的中国人不知道吸烟会导致心脏病，三分之二的中国人不知道，性快感也可能因为吸烟而减退。
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