Smoking will kill one in three young men in China unless rates of tobacco use drop dramatically, according to a new study in the medical journal The Lancet.
The study, led by Oxford University epidemiologist Zhengming Chen, is full of eye-opening stats: In 2010 alone, smoking accounted for 1 million Chinese deaths, primarily of men. If the current trend continues, that number will double by 2030. (In the United States, cigarettes kill 480,000 people annually—a number that's been steadily declining over the last several decades and is expected to keep dropping.) "About two-thirds of young Chinese men become cigarette smokers, and most start before they are 20," explains Chen. "Unless they stop, about half of them will eventually be killed by their habit."
"Slogans over the entrances to sponsored elementary schools read, 'Genius comes from hard work. Tobacco helps you become talented.'"
The researchers came to these conclusions by conducting two nationally representative studies—the first in the 90s, the second 15 years later—that tracked the health outcomes of smoking among a total of 730,000 men and women.
There is some good news: While smoking among men has increased dramatically in recent years, smoking among women has plummeted, to roughly 3 percent of the population. And the proportion of smokers overall who have chosen to quit rose from 3 percent to 9 percent between 1991 and 2006.
The high smoking rates are fueled by low prices. "Over the past 20 years, tobacco deaths have been decreasing in Western countries, partly because of price increases," said Richard Peto, a co-author of the study. "For China, a substantial increase in cigarette prices could save tens of millions of lives." Pervasive myths don't help either, including beliefs that Asians are less susceptible to tobacco's effects and smoking is easy to quit. The World Health Organization estimates that only a quarter of Chinese adults have a "comprehensive understanding" of smoking's hazards.
This lack of awareness is hardly surprising when you look into who's selling the cigarettes: An estimated 98 percent of the Chinese cigarette market is controlled by China National Tobacco Corporation, a government-owned conglomerate that runs more than 160 cigarette brands. According to a Bloomberg Business feature on the topic, the industry accounts for 7 percent of the country's revenue each year and employs roughly 500,000 people. In 2013, the company manufactured 2.25 trillion cigarettes. (Philip Morris International, the second-largest producer, manufactured 880 billion.)
"The extent to which the government is interlocked with the fortunes of China National might best be described by the company’s presence in schools," writes Bloomberg's Andrew Martin. "Slogans over the entrances to sponsored elementary schools read, 'Genius comes from hard work. Tobacco helps you become talented.'"