We almost had it: a ban on public smoking in Beijing. It would have been the Olympics’ greatest gift, a sword thrust to the greatest scourge of China’s public health and happiness since opium. But heaven forbid bars, restaurants, and internet cafes lose revenue for a few months, while millions re-learn to enjoy a drink, a meal, or a game of Counterstrike without the foul tickle of tar in their lungs.
So starting May 1st, government offices, hospitals, museums, and schools will officially forbid smoking on their premises. Great. Maybe this will encourage expats to spend more time checking new laowai regulations, getting those long-delayed prostate exams, taking in ancient calligraphy, and studying Chinese. As for the venues where we spend the majority of our leisure time and disposable income, you’re just as likely to encounter grey haze within them as without.
That perpetual haze gives us the “Damned if you don’t” expat rationale for smoking in China. Isn’t all this air pollution just as likely to give you lung cancer as ten or twenty Zhongnanhais a day? Not even close. American Cancer Society VP, Michael Thun MD, estimates that even the worst air pollution increases the risk of lung cancer by 1/100th of the increased risk brought on by smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Those who don’t smoke, but spend plenty of time around smokers (e.g. everyone in China), have a one/third greater risk of lung cancer than those who spend their time tobacco-free on a Swiss mountain top.
This doesn’t even take into account the heart disease that tobacco hastens. While Xinhua reports some 600,000 succumb to lung cancer each year in the Middle Kingdom, 2.15 million drop off from cardiovascular complications. Diets dripping with orange grease play a part, but the role of nicotine, revving up the old nervous system, while billowing clouds of free radicals bombard your blood pipes, is just as deadly.
So why does China kowtow to a bunch of greedy F&B slobs who haven’t even considered the folks who might come to their venues knowing they were smoke free, much less the fact that business would have to rebound once all the addicts dried out?The mildly cynical might point to the over 350 billion RMB the tobacco industry made China last year, given that it is largely a government industry. With tobacco-related illness costing the government about 35 billion a year, that’s a tidy profit.
But that’s approximately three weeks’ interest on the $1.3 trillion it has invested in the U.S.. That kind of chump change can’t justify the long-term ill effects of smoking on China, can it? “What about population control?” the even more cynical may query. Maybe we’re getting somewhere, but to understand the following, you have to be a smoker. And your author is, against his better judgment, having started in China because it was such a cheap habit he couldn’t afford not to, and who is hoping the ban will help him kick for good.
Nicotine is tough to quit, no doubt. But it is the irresistible psychological allure of smoking that makes it so addictive, and so potentially disruptive if discontinued. It can be both whim and reward, a legitimate work interruption or a treat for finishing some. It rounds out and adds an extra oomph to all the body’s sensual pleasures, not only eating. In a society that expects instant gratification but seems to always be waiting in line for it, the cigarette is the ultimate way to measure and then kill time. Furthermore, there can be no loneliness once you have brought the glowing embers of a cigarette to life. Finally, puffing smoke is an effortlessly creative act, simultaneous destruction (of your lung tissue) and creation (of evanescent smoke rings), not to mention the self-expression in the mannerisms each smoker adopts for his ritual.
In sum, no other cheap consumable quite fills the gaping void of existence so wellas the cigarette. Perhaps the nonsmoker can now understand why, at the review of the smoking ban proposal, Zhang Baozhen, deputy chief of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, said, “We take very seriously the health dangers of smoking, but not having cigarettes also impacts stability.”
With sex so dear, and liquor so insidious in the short-term, cigarettes are the one easy indulgence that makes life worth living for China’s 350 million smokers. Now take them away, and what do you have? Nothing less than the makings of a revolution.