There are approximately 300 million smokers in China, roughly the population of the United States. Smoking also kills about a million Chinese each year. Now Beijing is considering a ban on smoking in public places and tobacco advertising.
On the face of it, the ban is an effort by the government to control healthcare costs. But Stanford University anthropologist Matthew Kohrman, who has written extensively about smoking in China, sees the ban as a distraction from a bigger issue.
“It’s a sideshow,” Kohrman says.
This ban would target consumers, like advocacy efforts by other governments and the World Health Organization do. Kohrman is more concerned about the supply and production of tobacco.
“Most people would think that cigarette production has gone down worldwide over the last two or three decades. In fact, cigarette production has tripled since the 1960s,” he says. “China has become the world’s cigarette superpower.”
The places a Westerner might be surprised to find smoking today? Taxis, schools and even hospitals. Even so, consumer habits are changing. Public buses and high-end department stores are smoke-free. Airplanes, too, for the most part.
“For years now I’ve been flying on Chinese airlines,” Kohrman says. “Shortly after the flight takes off, I’ve almost on every flight smelled cigarette smoke. I always figured someone in the back has a fierce nicotine habit.”
Turns out, the passengers obeyed the signs and flight attendants’ instructions. The smoke was coming from the cockpit.