Smoking the Beijing air

I’m sure you’ve all heard horror stories about the air quality in Beijing – or the lack thereof. (I’ve also written about it before). It’s a little worrying how accurately I (and many of my foreign friends) can estimate the current AQI just by looking outside. The last couple of days have been pretty nasty – it’s depressing just looking outside. In Spring we had a lot of days that were both smoggy and rainy – a nasty combination. One day a thunderstorm blew in, combining with the high pollution to create an insane midday darkness.

These photos were taken at 12:30pm - that's right, lunchtime!

These photos were taken at 12:30pm – that’s right, lunchtime!

I know several people who, upon returning to their home countries after several years here, were asked by doctors how much they smoked – not if, but how much, based on how their lungs looked. Worrying stuff.

I used to hear people joke (I hope) about Beijing air being like smoking a pack a day. Well, a year or so ago a foreign doctor in Beijing who writes a popular blog looked into it. I was surprised, as was he, to discover how much LESS dangerous the air is than smoking – the equivalent of one cigarette a week, nowhere near a pack a day. Still after more than 9 years here, that makes it  over 450 cigarettes for me! (Read the full article here.) As the doc points out, however, knowing how awful the air is here, this makes it clear just how bad cigarettes are for one’s health.

Cigarettes are big business in China, and very commonly given as gifts (especially when returning from a trip overseas). While I’ve always known that, looking up the statistics was frightening. Over 60% of men over 45 smoke, and about 55% of men in general; the number among 15-24 year old men is lower, but at 33% still not low. Far fewer women smoke – and the percentage has dropped over the past decade from 10% to less than 3%.

There are more than 300 million smokers in China; China comsumes more tobacco than any other nation. China is also the world’s largest producer of tobacco, making 42% of the world’s cigarettes. I guess that’s not too surprising, given that China has the biggest population in the world. The difference is that here there is no need for a tobacco lobby; the profits go directly to the government. The big national tobacco company in China is the world’s largest tobacco manufacturer, and contributes up to 10% of the government’s annual revenue. Tobacco earns the Chinese government a total of $30 billion dollars every year – while treatment for tobacco-related diseases costs the government only $5 billion dollars a year. A lucrative business indeed.

When I arrived in 2004, there was little public education about the risks of smoking. Studies show that Chinese smokers have a poorer understanding of the health risks, especially of heart disease, stroke, and second-hand smoke, than smokers in western countries. The number one cause of death in China is lung cancer, and yet a 2004 study of 3,500 Chinese doctors found 41% of male doctors said they smoked (only 1% of female doctors admitted to smoking, though – you go girls!) Almost all the smokers had smoked during their work shift, and a third had smoked in front of patients.

There is some hope, though. In my nearly 10 years in Beijing there has been a drastic change in public smoking and attitudes toward smoking, especially among the educated. When I first arrived in 2004, all Chinese restaurants were a haze of smoke by the end of mealtimes. In 2008 a ban on public smoking was enacted, though rarely if ever enforced. I remember being stunned at the sight of an anti-smoking poster in a restaurant in 2009. Many friends snapped photos of people smoking next to no smoking signs in public areas. No smoking signs became common in cabs and lifts, though the smell of smoke was often pervasive. Two years ago, in 2011, much stricter bans came into force, banning smoking in most enclosed public spaces, including restaurants, bars and subways.

Things are definitely changing. Whereas taxi drivers regularly smoked in the car during my first few years (and were grumpy if asked not to – despite the no smoking sign on the dashboard) it’s very uncommon now. There is now far less smoking in restaurants than ever before (in 2004, every public meal finished in a pall of cigarette smoke).  A survey of 10,000 Beijingers showed that almost all of the 60% aware of the public smoking bans hoped they would be enforced. While the lift in my new building has on several occasions smelled strongly of smoke, the only time another [Chinese] person was present, she made an irritated comment about how rude it was to smoke in the lift. That, to me, is a sign that things really are changing for the better.

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UPDATE: Just read this article which talks about Chinese kids’ familiarity with cigarettes, and the disturbing news that 22% expect to smoke when they grow up!

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5 thoughts on “Smoking the Beijing air

  1. Great post! I don’t think I could ever visit Beijing even for an hour. I’m a distance runner who lives just outside of New York City. On the rare occasion that I do run in the city, I notice my performance suffers, and it is due to the air quality of the city.

    I sometimes have to stop running because I start coughing so much. This rarely happens to me in the suburbs or in the nature parks far north of the city, and I don’t have asthma or respiratory problems.

    Then I hear how the air pollution in Beijing is something like 8X to 20X worse than the air of New York City(and the same is true of dozens of other Chinese cities). I don’t know how people can live like that. I think it would kill me. I hear it really is killing a lot of people, though mostly elderly people with heart and/or respiratory problems. It also either causes or exacerbates childhood asthma, and may also cause cancer.

    I’ve also read that in Northern China, the life expectancy is 2 years shorter compared to southern China, and this is mostly due to all the coal power plants in the north. I hope there’s a place you can go to occassionally to get a breath of fresh air; it does seem some people do adapt to this kind of air, the same way many smokers can smoke all their lives and not come down with any serious disease. Although just because you can adapt to something doesn’t make it good.

    Again, very informative post, and I admit I worry about you and everyone else there. Sorry for making this so long.

  2. I noticed a significant improvement in my health when I got an air purifier for my bedroom. I try not to think too much about what 9+ years of this air has done to my body…

  3. Pingback: Another year of writing | Tanya's Stories

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