China is the last refuge of the unrepentant smoker. Chinese will not look down upon you for smoking while they are eating or while you are eating. No, no, no, they’ll encourage it. It is OK to smoke in trains or cabs. Cigarettes are available everywhere and they are cheap.
A report by The Jamestown Foundation says 66% of men over 15 years old are fond of lighting up 15 times a day. One in three cigarettes smoked around the world is smoked in China.
Hard core smokers, the ones that don’t mind the type of cigarettes that visibly diminish your life force, can pick up cancer sticks for RMB2. It’s cheap, as it should be, because smoking is the great economic equalizer. Poorer people smoke cheaper cigarettes while richer (and more educated) people don’t give it up but boldly embrace the more expensive brands.
Meanwhile big tobacco, in the form of the State Tobacco Monopoly Association, is cashing in to the tune of more than US$2 billion per year. And everybody gets a piece of the action. Except for the five million rural households that farm an average of one hectare of tobacco each and are pushed into producing labor-intensive flue-cured tobacco by local governments. The local governments, in turn, sell the regular quotas to the monopoly agencies and use the rest to produce bootlegs and take a bite out of tobacco conglomerates like Philip Morris and the British American Tobacco Company.
There is perhaps no better way of looking at China’s commitment to be a haven for smokers than to look at the raw numbers. There are 350 million smokers who share their second hand smoke with another 460 million people — mostly women and children.
China produces 1.7 trillion cigarettes every year and the government makes a ton of money but it could make more just by raising taxes. (It could also cut down on smoking by doing the same thing but then the local governments might have a harder time forcing farmers to plant tobacco.)
The developed world is turning its back on smokers. (Two weeks ago a judge in the US told smokers they could sue cigarette companies for fraud for perpetuating the belief that smoking light cigarettes is not as bad as smoking regular cigarettes.)
Local governments make money, the central government makes money, the tobacco monopoly makes a killing and people light up with gusto.
A couple of million people a year by 2020 is not that big a price to pay, is it?