Tobacco smoke fuels China's socialism

May 13, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

YUXI, CHINA| — YUXI, China -- Here is the mighty core of China's industrial strength, the Chinese government's cash cow, the most profitable sector among all its massive state-run industries. Not steel, not oil, not chemicals -- but tobacco.

Eighteen hours a day, 13,000 cigarettes slide off the production lines each minute at the Yuxi Cigarette Factory, a place permanently enveloped by the sweet aroma of cured tobacco grown in the fields around this small town in southwestern China's Yunnan province.

Yuxi's 14 brands -- Red Pagoda Mountains, Purple Clouds, HappyNew Years -- add up to 50 billion smokes a year, making it Asia's largest cigarette factory.

For a nation that produces and consumes more cigarettes than any other in the world, this is only a small part of a very hazy picture: In all, 330 million Chinese smokers annually light up some 1.5 trillion butts, choosing from among more than 200 brands.

As most of China's large state-run enterprises continue to lose money, revenue from the state tobacco monopoly makes it the single most profitable industry, providing the central government with almost 10 percent of its total budget.

China's paramount leader and leading chain smoker, Deng Xiaoping, recently kicked his lifelong habit at the age of 86, one of his daughters, artist Deng Lin, told a Sun reporter at a private dinner. "We were nagging him every day to give it up," she said.

However, cigarettes appear solidly entrenched in modern China's way of life. "It has become our Chinese tradition," said Qiao Fa Ke, a director of the Yuxi factory who smokes a pack a day in the name of "testing the quality" of his plant's output.

For more than 300 years, tobacco was smoked in China primarily through water pipes. The Chinese cigarette industry did not take off until Virginian tobacco seeds were imported to Yunnan's similar climate and soil in the 1920s -- when opium was still widely grown and smoked here.

Now, water pipes are a rare sight in China, and it often seems as though no street corner here lacks a cigarette vendor with sample packs stuck to a signboard, as though no park bench is without a retiree savoring a smoke, and as though nothing can take place without cigarettes.

As much as the traditional cup of tea, offering cigarettes has become a sign of friendship and respect here. In restaurants, it is common to see people eating with one hand and smoking with the other. People smoke while riding their bicycles. They smoke at their political meetings -- always in their meetings.

Some believe that tobacco is the very stuff holding together China's socialist fabric. "In socialist countries, we provide what people want,"said Chang Kai Hai, a Yunnan Tobacco Corp. official. "If people want to smoke and need to smoke, we will produce cigarettes. And if we stopped production in China, maybe we would have some of the same instability as in the Soviet Union."

Per capita cigarette consumption actually is higher in the United States and many European countries than in China. Although more than 70 percent of Chinese men over 30 smoke, only 7 percent of Chinese women do -- a far lower rate than that of Western women.

However, in contrast to the West's declining smoking rates, tobacco use continues to increase here, in part because TC Chinese anti-smoking lobby has only just become active.

Since 1950, the number of cigarettes consumed here has increased 15 times, while the population has only doubled. Recent studies show that young Chinese, particularly girls, are smoking in far greater numbers than ever. In the next century, lung cancer rates are expected to surpass those in the UnitedStates, with 2 million annual cases predicted by 2025.

Smoking is now banned on domestic airline flights and on buses in many large cities, but no-smoking zones are rare elsewhere. Packs of cigarettes do not carry health warnings, and a regulation barring cigarette ads is widely ignored.

The nascent Chinese Association on Smoking and Health has failed twice in the last two years to persuade China's legislature to pass the nation's first comprehensive smoking-control law.

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