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China’s future going up in smoke?

By 5 June 2009 No Comment

When does a boy become a man? For some, it’s growing and mowing that facial peach fuzz on a consistent schedule. For others, it’s turning the monumental age of 18 when the law defines you as an adult. For Chinese boys, smoking is one of the key rites of passage, said He Bing, 28, a Beijing chauffeur who picked up the habit at 16 to imitate the adults around him.

“Some middle schoolers feel like smoking makes them feel more like a man,” He said. “I started for the same reasons.”

Beijing native and club promoter Zhang Nannan, 30, tried his first cigarette at age 11 after stealing it from his father. “‘Why?!’” Zhang said. “’Why did [my father] smoke?’ I wanted to know, so I tried it too.”

China accounts for one out of every three cigarettes consumed worldwide, with a total of 67 percent of all Chinese men and 4 percent of all the women smoking. When it comes to teenagers, 33 percent of males and almost 8 percent of females smoke. Approximately 3,000 Chinese die daily from smoke-related causes, according to the World Health Organization.

Despite their seeming nonchalance, mandatory education programs make sure these youngsters are aware of the risks of smoking. However, Zhang thinks Beijing’s pollution level is enough reason to not worry about the effects of smoking. Breathing Beijing air for a day is as damaging as smoking 70 cigarettes, according to Lonely Planet China.

“What’s ten more going to do?” Zhang said.

At his peak, Zhang smoked two and a half packs a day during high school and has tried to quit many times, with the longest gap being one year. However, he finds not smoking hard in social settings and says that is his main reason for continuing his habit. “If I were alone at home, I probably wouldn’t smoke,” Zhang said. “But if I’m around friends, I feel like I want to.”

Although the majority of teen smokers start puffing away in middle school, there are some who start at even more tender ages. A Beijing taxi driver, who declined to give his name, said that when he was seven he pooled his pocket money with classmates in order to buy cigarettes. “Thirty years ago, no one cared how young you were,” he said.

Today, China has a law forbidding anyone under the age of 18 from smoking, but even so, the vast majority start lighting up way before the legal limit. Jiang Huiling, Deputy Director of the Judicial Reform Office at the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing, acknowledges that the issue of underage smoking may not be a top priority at the moment as China’s legal system develops and modernizes, especially with the prosecution of more serious crimes to worry about.

Chinese people tend to believe “smoking is managed by moral rules” rather than legal ones, Jiang said – for instance, the courtesy of not smoking around sick people. To change the perception of a moral standard into a legal one will take some time even though time appears to be of the essence. Smoking contributes to four out of five leading causes of death in China today and will kill a third of all young (under thirty) Chinese men now alive, according to the World Health Organization.

For now, a time-honored fatalism seems to hold sway. “Sooner or later we will all die,” Zhang Nannan said, with a chuckle, when asked if he was concerned about the health effects of his habit. Taking another puff, he adds “Mei shi” – “It is nothing.”

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