Since I’ve been living in China, I often read travelers’ blogs and reviews about their experiences here. One writer was shocked not only how prevalent smoking is but also by the lack of regulation. During her dinner she was annoyed that people were lighting up all around her. Welcome to China, ma’am, where smoking is quite common.

China is the world’s largest tobacco consumer and producer. That may not be surprising considering it also has the world’s largest population. On the other hand research shows that a number of countries with large populations don’t necessarily have large per-capita smoking consumption. It seems that the attitudes here towards smoking are similar to what it used to be in America once upon a time. Unlike in the United States where smoking is restricted in restaurants, public places, and medical facilities, the location does not seem to matter here. You see lots of smoking going on…seemingly everywhere.

Last year, the Chinese Health Ministry launched a national ban on lighting up in hotels, restaurants and other indoor public spaces .The regulations also stipulate that cigarette vending machines cannot be located in public places. But these regulations are basically a joke. That’s because there are no specific penalty guidelines. I remember seeing a guy smoking in a building while standing next to a no smoking sign! It’s to be expected that a restaurant is reluctant to chase away smoking customers only to have them land in a competitor’s eatery.

Another part of the picture is that the Chinese National Tobacco Company is owned by the government. Last year it generated 14.3 billion dollars in PROFIT. In the same year that’s more than double the profits of Philip Morris International, the manufacturer of the popular Marlboro brands. The government’s involvement seems to put health groups at a serious disadvantage.

Macua, however, enacted some strict non smoking regulations in the new year and so far the government there seems serious about enforcing them. There is one major exception-it’s permitted on the floors of the casinos. The casinos are major cash cows and the Chinese obviously don’t want to alienate any money. Interestingly, there ARE no smoking zones in the gambling areas but there’s definitely a lot more people gambling in the smoking spots.

The statistics on how many Chinese smoke are significant. There are 350 million smokers here. That’s more than the entire population of the United States. 1.2 million Chinese die of smoking related-illness every year. Yet 50% of Chinese doctors supposedly light up. I remember that while a United International Colleague was receiving a physical therapy treatment the doctor was matter- of- factly smoking during the treatment session.

Smoking most definitely is a part of the culture. Ironically in 1638 there was an imperial edict declaring possession, use, or selling or tobacco was a capital offense punishable by decapitation. If that rule were still in effect today, China would suffer a serious population loss. My Asian colleagues tell me cartons of cigarettes are often given as part of business deals or as presents during the Chinese New Year. It reminds me of a time in my past. When my parents were smokers, they sometimes gave cigarettes as Christmas presents to relatives. I remember the cartons used to come with holiday decorations on them. In fact, do a Google search of Christmas cigarette advertising and you can find many ads of Santa Claus smoking a number of popular brands at the time!

Unlike in America where heavy taxation has been put in place to discourage smoking, the price of cigarettes here is generally quite low. Certain brands can be purchased for around $5 yuan a pack. That’s around 75 cents in American money. They’re also easy to purchase. Many small corner stores sell cigarettes.

One major difference in Chinese tobacco culture is that you do not often see women smoking…at least not in mainland. Hong Kong is an entirely different story perhaps because it is more Westernized. But it seems more women may be embracing cigarettes. Anti-smoking groups report Chinese women are the new targets in Asia. In this culture there used to be a certain stigma that it was unlady-like or just for sex workers (what prostitutes are called in China) It was the same case in the United States until about 1929. But Lucky Strike cigarettes staged a famous promotion designed to encourage women to smoke. During the Easter Parade, models walked down Fifth Avenue-smoking their Luckies. This PR gimmick called the Torches of Liberty tripled the sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes. It apparently also removed the taboos surrounding women and smoking.

China seems already headed in that direction as well. Visit any of the places popular with young people such as the Underground shopping complex in Gongbei and you will see young women smoking. The Marlboro Cowboy has also ridden into China. Phillip Morris can now sell its cigarettes here. At one of the shopping malls women dressed up as Marlboro Cowboys were giving away free cigarettes. Marlboros can readily be found at many of the small stands selling cigarettes. Other Western and European brands are starting to appear as well.

So another aspect of our culture is spreading in a nation where smoking is already a strong part of their culture. It remains to be seen if the strong antismoking efforts that are evident in our country will take root here as well.