There have been lots of news stories about smoking in China lately. That’s not surprising because smoking plays a very large part in Chinese life.
Smoking is extremely popular here, although it’s mostly a male pastime. In traditional Chinese culture, women who smoked were considered to be of ill repute. That’s no longer the case, but the vast majority of smokers are men.
In my own demographic, mid-30s male, a high percentage of Chinese people smoke. I don’t know many Chinese people in this demographic, but of those I do, almost all are smokers.
Contrast this to Australia, where none of my friends smoke, or the UK, where only a handful of my friends smoke. Of course, the subset of people I know may not fill the demographic average, but the difference is tangible.
Smoking As Part Of The Social Fabric
Smoking is not just a habit here – it’s part of everyday social life in China.
When men meet, they offer each other cigarettes, in the same way Westerners shake hands. When meeting someone for the first time, offering them a cigarette is seen as both a goodwill gesture and an icebreaker. Smoking together helps creates a bond.
This doesn’t just apply to new acquaintances. Friends and relatives often do the same. When a friend visits your house, it’s polite to offer them a cigarette. It’s part of Chinese hospitality.
It’s also customary to smoke during and after meals. When people finish eating, the first thing they do is light up. A good restaurant is likely to be filled with people – and therefore smoke!
If you are a Western male in China, it’s inevitable that you will be offered a cigarette at some point. If you smoke, fine! If you don’t, just say no.
This will normally be accepted, although the person offering will often be surprised and there have been times when I’ve been pressured to accept.
To say refuse a cigarette, say "wo bu hui chou" (我不会抽), which is pronounced as "war boo hway cho". This literally means "I no can smoke". There are other variations such as "wo bu hui chou yan" or "wo bu chou yan".
If the person offering the cigarette continues to offer, just repeat this politely until they gave up. Try to stay polite – they may be pressuring you, but they are doing so to be polite!
Some Facts About Smoking In China
From the following story on English People’s Daily Online, come some startling statistics:
According to the Ministry of Health, it (China) has more than 350 million smokers, of which 50 million are teenagers.
That’s a lot of people! China has more smokers than the USA has people! Just the teenage smokers are more than double the population of Australia.
About 1 million people die from smoking-related diseases every year, the ministry said.
That’s a lot of people who are dying needlessly – about 1.9 people die each minute. Think about how many people are dying while you’re reading this. And it’s not just the smokers who are dying…
About 540 million Chinese suffer from the effects of secondhand smoke and more than 100,000 die every year from diseases caused by passive smoking, the ministry said
Cigarettes Are Even Counterfeited!
Everyone knows China has a problem with counterfeited goods: DVDs, mp3, designer clothes, shoes… If you can name it, you can buy a fake. Even cigarettes are being counterfeited – from the English People’s Daily Online:
A total of 9.28 billion counterfeit cigarettes were seized nationwide in 2007, the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA) announced in Beijng on Wednesday.
Yes, that’s 9.28 billion fake cigarettes. And that’s only the ones they found.
Leaving aside all the health implications that may arise from smoking fake cigarettes (who knows what they put in them!), when there’s that much demand for fake cigarettes, you know a country’s got a smoking problem.
The Government Recognises The Danger
Although the vast majority of cigarettes sold in China are produced by a state owned monopoly, the government seems to recognise the danger.
There have been a number of quotes from government officials about the burden smoking is placing on the health system – and the health system is one of the major issues for people here in China.
The government has been introducing measure to control smoking. These include banning smoking in taxis, hospitals and government offices…
But Not Much Is Changing
The government is faced with an uphill battle trying to stop the nation’s smoking habit. This is evidenced by the smoking ban kills restaurant story on news.com.au, which outlines how a restaurant which banned smoking lost 80% of it’s customers. Here are some quotes from the article:
Meizhou Dongpo had trained its waitresses how to discourage people from lighting up, but met resistance from customers who would lock staff out of private dining rooms to sneak a quick puff
Chinese people often see rules as something to be bent, or something that applies to other people. It’s no surprise that they’ll ignore the smoking ban. I’ve seen people sitting below a no smoking sign, happily puffing away.
Beijing authorities had written to 30,000 restaurants asking them to put smoking bans in place, but not a single one had taken up the suggestion.
It could be argued that the government should outlaw smoking rather than asking restaurants to do it, but such a move would be ignored, in the best case scenario, and would provoke uproar, in the worst case.
A Personal Annecdote
Two days after writing this, a stranger visited our house to look at something we were selling. No sooner than he’d walked in, did he produce a cigarette packet and offer me one. I refused automatically, using wo bu chou this time. He nodded and said something like “oh, bu chou, bu chou, okay” and proceeded to light up.
Neither my wife or myself smoke and we have a young child (who was sitting right there), so we don’t appreciate smoke in the house. My wife had a polite word and the cigarette was put out immediately. There were no hard feelings and the conversation continued normally.
By Western standards, it’s incredibly rude to walk into someone else’s house and start smoking without asking permission. In fact, it’s a little bold to even consider smoking in someone’s house when you’re only there to look at something you might buy.
By Chinese standards, he wasn’t being rude at all. In fact, I probably should have offered him a cigarette! It was completely natural for him to walk in out of the cold, into someone’s house and then to have a smoke. There was nothing bold or rude about it from his point of view.
The differences in culture and behaviour make life interesting in China. In some cases, the differences are delightful. In other cases, such as this, they are annoying.
It’s important to remember that things are different in China and to try to be tolerant. I’m not saying you have to accept everything (we didn’t put up with the smoke), but at least try to understand the differences and act politely.
Smoking is an important (and unavoidable) part of life in China. For non-smoking foreigners, it’s something we have to put up with to a degree.
For me, the real worry is the health of the Chinese people, but for change to happen, it needs the support of the people. That’s just not there at the moment. If it were up to me, I’d start with some graphic TV advertisements to start educating people about the dangers of smoking.
Perhaps I ought to set my students an assignment where they have to research the effects of smoking on health…