Photo by Shreyans Bhansali
Asia-Pacific / Healthcare

Tobacco and the Environment in China

Fifty years ago, the United States Surgeon General, Luther Terry, linked tobacco use to adverse health effects for the first time. To commemorate the anniversary, researchers at Yale published a study in January arguing that subsequent anti-smoking regulations and campaigns have saved eight million lives in the United States alone.

Indeed, tobacco use is still a large public-health issue in the U.S., but the number of smokers has been declining steadily. Since 1965, the percentage of adult smokers in the U.S. has declined by more than half, to 18.1 percent, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. In many ways, however, the rest of the world is trending in the other direction. According to a 2010 World Health Organization (WHO) report, 80 percent of tobacco smokers live in developing countries.

China, in particular, has a massive tobacco culture; it is the largest consumer of tobacco in the world, with over 300 million smokers. While tobacco use is slowly declining, China lags behind the U.S. and other countries in knowledge about the effects of tobacco. According to the WHO, less than half of Chinese smokers recognize a link between tobacco use and lung cancer or other serious diseases. As a result, few people intend to quit: 15.8 percent of Chinese smokers have tried quitting, compared with 45.3 percent of American smokers, according to the WHO.

Over the past year, the Chinese government has made concerted efforts to regulate smoking more heavily. Plans were announced last month to prohibit smoking in public, indoor areas by the end of this year. A separate plan, also announced last month, intends to end smoking inside public schools.

Meanwhile, as China attempts to increase its regulation of tobacco use, it also wants to lessen its environmental impact. While China’s economic prowess has grown, its environmental record has deteriorated in equal measure. The country’s pollution problems have long been well chronicled. Smog and air pollution became a key issue during the 2008 Olympics, as athletes worried about their ability to perform in the polluted air, and the government invested millions of dollars in controversial cloud-seeding technology.

After he was elected as China’s new president in 2012, Xi Jinping made waves by declaring environmental protection a priority. “We should be fully aware of the urgency and difficulty of protecting the environment and reducing pollution as well as the significance and necessity of improving the environment,” he said at the time.

Can China enact reforms that will lessen its environmental impact and improve the health of its citizens? While air pollution caused by vehicle emissions and the construction of massive infrastructure projects is the most visible from a distance, the country is struggling with other environmental problems, too – climate change issues that will ultimately have a far greater effect on the world than air pollution.