In 1638, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, issued an imperial edict declaring the possession, use or selling of tobacco was a capital offense punishable by decapitation.
Three years later, a powerful general, who was in charge of the army guarding the border with the northeastern Manchu area, asked the emperor to end the ban, saying tobacco was crucial to boosting the morale of the soldiers and curing their diseases.
The emperor weighed the arguments and decided to end the ban -- although it failed to stop his throne being toppled in 1644 by the Manchu.
Today, tobacco is deeply entwined into the national culture from the compulsory cigarettes given to male guests at almost every wedding to the glossy images of national icons that adorn cigarette packets.
China is the world's largest tobacco producer and tobacco consumer. It is home to one quarter of the world’s smokers and they consume a third of the world’s cigarettes.
In China there are 350 million smokers, about three times the number of smokers in the United States, or more than the entire population of the United States. Chinese smokers smoke an average of 15.8 cigarettes a day, which works out to more than 2 trillion cigarettes a year. Even so 50 percent of Chinese doctors smoke.
Smoking is very much part of Chinese culture. Many Chinese like to smoke not only after a meal but during a meal. Expensive cigarette brands like Panda and Zhonghua are commonly given as presents to bosses and parents and are offered as a welcoming gesture to house guests. Some brands link themselves to good causes. A message on packs of Zhongnanhai brand cigarettes reads: “For each pack you consume, you are devoting your part to the charity Hope Project.”
Smoking Culture in China
Smoking has become part of the culture in China. Offering cigarettes is an easy way to make a friend, solidify a bond or ease an introduction. Cigarettes are given as wedding gifts, presented to guests along with snacks at parties and left as offerings on the graves of men who have died of lung cancer. Many characters on television and film are heavy smokers.
Cigarettes are handed out at funerals. Setting a lit cigarette next to a grave is said to pacify the craving of the deceased. Drivers pulled over for driving violations often hand the police a cigarette before they show their license. Passing out Double Happiness cigarettes at wedding ceremonies is supposed to increase a bride’s fertility.
Smoking is a sign of machismo, a way to greet old friends and make new friends and a method of bribing officials. One reason that half of Chinese doctors smoke is that relatives of patients often give cigarettes as a thank you gift. One Chinese researcher told the Los Angeles Times. “And if senior doctors smoke, junior doctors follow suit. If you’re offered a cigarette and decline, you’re still seen as rude, we need to change this custom.”
Chinese smoke on elevators and in hospitals Restaurants are filled with smokers. One saying goes: “A smoke after dinner is better than life after death.” Smoking between dishes during meals is a common practice. Some Chinese smoke and eat at the same time with chopsticks in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Many Chinese like to shout and blow smoke, while they are spitting.
Many smokers say that a morning smoke energizes them. Urban women smokers say that smoking helps keep them focused and fosters creativity.
Smoking and Doing Business
Deals are often sealed with a handshake and a gift of a carton of cigarettes. Non-smokers often accept cigarettes but later throw them away. Declining a cigarette can be taken as an insult and causes the cigarette giver to lose face. A researcher at the China Tobacco Museum in Shanghai told the New York Times, “Cigarettes have an extra value that helps improve many social interactions.”
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “For entrepreneurs, the give-and take of cigarettes represents a kind of semaphore.” Each brand has “a distinct identity and an unspoken exchange rate. Around Beijing, peasants smoke Red Plum Blossoms. Red Pagoda Mountain can be found in the pockets of average city men. Low level entrepreneurs like Zhongnanhai Lights. A nouveau-rich businessman tosses out Chunghwas as if they were rice. Pandas are the rarest and best of all...government quotas make them hard to find.”
A local village leader told Hessler, “I had a pack of Chunghwas that had been given to me by a customer. One man at the table had Red Pagoda Mountain, and another had State Express 555. But I was the one with the most expensive brand. They were all important people, each one had some possible use of me. I’m thinking about installing a water heater for my guesthouse, and there’s a government program that pays for that in the countryside. One of the men deals with that program. So it might be possible for me to install it for free.”
China Smoking Ban
In 2006, the Chinese government signed the Free Tobacco Initiative. However there has been little progress reported since then. A plan in Beijing to ban smoking in bars, restaurant, karaoke lounges and massage parlors was proposed but quickly died. Laws that encourage eating and drinking establishments to set aside nonsmoking areas have been ignored.
In January 2008, it was reported that Beijing’s first smoke-free restaurant chain may go out of business because its customers have deserted en mass (as high as 80 percent at some restaurants) after the ban was put in place in October 2007.
One Beijing cab driver told the New York Times, “If I point to the no-smoking sign, the passengers will just laugh and keep smoking.” A Beijing restaurant owner told the New York Times, “My customers would rather starve than not smoke, and I would go out of business. In China, you cannot drink, eat and socialize without a cigarette.”
However, starting May 1, 2011, all bars, restaurants, hospitals and other public places in China are slated to become smoke-free, inside and out. The current ban was mandated by the State Council, China’s top administrative body, in response to a World Health Organization treaty Beijing signed in 2006 pledging to enact nationwide tobacco-control legislation within five years.
The law mandates a penalty of 30,000 Yuan, or about $4,600, for owners of establishments that do not comply, but it is still unclear who will enforce the ban and what actions will trigger such a steep fine.
What exactly does a smoking ban constitute in a country where sometimes the rule is that there are no real rules, especially in the case of smoking? We're talking about a habit so deeply rooted in the lives of one in three people, ranging from the migrant laborer at the train station to the business executive at the bar, that smoking comes as naturally as breathing to them. The trail of cigarette smoke is unfortunately inescapable.
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