Secondhand smoke kills ― but does anyone care?

By Kristen Mcavoy
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, July 22, 2012
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Kristen McAvoy is an intern for and recently graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I have lived in the state of North Carolina since I was 6 years old, and the popularity of smoking has always been an important topic since tobacco has historically been the state's cash crop. In the past decade, however, the increasing smoking bans and laws against advertising for tobacco products have sincerely hurt North Carolina's tobacco farmers and caused a lot of controversy. The United States has finally realized how dangerous smoking can be, and the government is taking steps to prevent tobacco use. In 2011, 38 states had some form of a smoking ban law, with most banning smoking in public places like restaurants.

But what about China?

When I arrived in China seven weeks ago, I was amazed not by only the number of smokers, but the fact that smoking is allowed just about anywhere I go. Regardless of where I am, I seem to find someone smoking around me. Consequently, I feel that I have been more exposed to more secondhand smoke in China than I have ever been in North Carolina.

After a little research I discovered that my observations were spot on. China has 350 million smokers, which account for one-third of the world's smoking population. The country produces 42 percent of the world's cigarettes, and Chinese citizens account for approximately 1.2 of the 5 million people that die annually due to cigarette-related illnesses.

Currently, 60 percent of Chinese males over the age of 15 smoke and 4 percent of Chinese females over the age of 15 smoke. China has the largest smoking population in the world, and it is estimated that by 2030, 3.5 million Chinese deaths will be attributed to smoking each year. If this estimate is correct, Chinese citizens will account for around 44 percent of tobacco related deaths in the world.

Despite these alarming statistics, I also discovered that China does have smoking bans in place. In 2005, China ratified the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which was supposed to ban all types of tobacco advertising and promotion and smoking in all indoor work places and public areas by 2011. The sale of tobacco to minors or citizens under the age of 18 is also illegal.

We are now in 2012, and I have to say that these laws may exist on paper, but in reality they are rarely enforced. Although I have seen no advertisements for tobacco, smoking is certainly not banned in indoor work places and public areas. I cannot comment on the sale of tobacco to minors since I am over the age of 18, but I would not be surprised if this supposed law was an illusion as well.

It is a known fact that secondhand smoke is harmful to your health. An estimated 10,000 Chinese die each year due to secondhand smoke, according to Xinhua. So what is the Chinese government waiting for?

The answer is simple. China National Tobacco Corporation, a state-owned corporation, brought in 770.4 billion yuan in sales in 2010, with a net income of 117.7 billion yuan or $18.7 billion. In addition, the government received more than $95 billion in tax revenues from the tobacco industry last year.

Based on its 2010 profits, China National Tobacco Corporation is the 18th largest corporation in the world, according to Bloomberg data.

Unfortunately, this is the case in many countries where laws exist regarding tobacco use but they are not enforced due to rich and powerful tobacco corporations. But the question that remains is why would people pick up a habit that is very likely to kill them?

The answer may be that the Chinese are unaware of all negative consequences associated with smoking. Smoking warnings are rarely found in China other than the small caption that is found on all cigarette packs which reads, "Smoking is harmful to your health. Quitting earlier is good for your health". This statement does not seem to be very effective; in China an additional 3 million people start lighting up every year. I even found one source which claimed that some Chinese felt that smoking was good for them.

As the topic of secondhand smoke becomes a more salient issue in China, I sincerely hope that Chinese citizens become more educated on the negative effects of smoking and fight to decrease their exposure to secondhand smoke. The reality of being a non-smoker in a city like Beijing where simply breathing is equated to smoking 5 cigarettes a month due to the pollution, in addition to being exposed to secondhand smoke is quite disheartening. While it is impossible for individuals to reverse the effects of air pollution, they can push to decrease their exposure to secondhand smoke through encouraging more legislation and stricter enforcement of existing smoking bans. People who choose not to smoke shouldn't have to suffer the consequences of the bad habits of others.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of


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