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Tobacco in China (Part 1): Real Men Smoke

October 28th, 2007

The Wall Street Journal printed a fun-to-read article yesterday on cigarette smoking in China by Hugo Restall of the Far Eastern Economic Review, who took up the habit of smoking apparently just weeks before writing the piece. His reasoning:

After years of resisting, a friend in Shanghai gave me the perfect excuse to start smoking. China has become so polluted, he told me, that it’s better to breathe through a cigarette filter than just take in the air on its own. And if your lungs are going to get shot to hell anyway, you might as well enjoy it. So, well into middle age, I figured that it was probably a good time to take up the smoking habit. The result? I enjoy it so much that I don’t know why I didn’t take it up earlier.

Funny stuff, and it reminded me of the story of one Westerner who returned to the US after many years in China. He was told by his doctor that his health seemed all right, but that maybe he should consider giving up smoking - his chest x-rays looked that bad. The thing was the guy had never smoked in the first place.

One of the points in the newspaper article that caught my attention was the idea that in China “real men” smoke:

Real men smoke, period. And when real men hang out together, they smoke a lot. The presence of women is appreciated, of course–if they are quick with a lighter.

I did research years ago on tobacco control policy and among the data was information on male/female smoking ratios in the world. Men smoked more than women in Asia (in China 63% of men, versus 4% of women), but smoking rates were nearly even between the sexes in the West (28% of American men smoke; American women, 23%). Sweden was the only country listed in the WHO survey where more women smoke than men. I asked a Swede about it, and he told me that real Swedish men don’t smoke – they chew tobacco. About the Vietnam rate differences, I recalled speaking with someone who believed that Vietnam was in some way “more Chinese than China”. Thinking of smoking habits, I wondered if that’s what he meant.

Smoking Rates (Men/Women)

Vietnam: 73% / 4%
China: 63% / 4%
Russian Federation: 63% / 30%
Japan: 59% / 15%
Sri Lanka: 55% / 1%
Israel: 45% / 30%
Thailand: 45% / 3%
India: 40% / 3%
France: 40% / 27%
Egypt: 40% / 1%
Norway: 36% / 36%
Singapore: 32% / 3%
Ireland: 30% / 28%
United Kingdom: 29% / 28%
United States: 28% / 23%
Australia: 27% / 23%
Sweden: 22% / 24%

Data: World Health Organization (1997)

This is mean to be the first part of a short series on tobacco in China…

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