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China’s Growing Deadly Addiction

2 minute read

To live in China, home to more than 300 million smokers, is to marinate in a haze of tobacco fumes. Now a new study published in the medical journal the Lancet has found that to live in China is, all too often, to die from cigarette smoke. By 2050, smoking could lead to 3 million deaths a year in China, and if rates don’t fall, at least half of Chinese males could eventually die from their nicotine habit–what the Lancet calls a “growing epidemic of premature death.”

Although smoking is declining worldwide, two-thirds of Chinese men light up, according to the study. (A relatively small fraction of Chinese women smoke.) And while luxury-cigarette cartons are a common gift during Chinese holidays, an average pack costs little more than a dollar. Even the poorest Chinese can afford to smoke. And why shouldn’t they? Cigarette companies advertise in schools and health clinics.

The Chinese government knows it has a medical crisis on its hands, even if many Chinese men still consider smoking an acceptable social rite. As of this summer, smoking was banned in public indoor spaces in Beijing, a prohibition that is not always enforced. Still, the world’s largest tobacco company, China National Tobacco Corp., which churns out more than 2.5 trillion cigarettes a year for dozens of domestic brands, is owned by none other than the Chinese government. In fact, 7% of the state’s revenue comes from tobacco. That’s an addiction that may be even harder to quit than smoking.

Beech is TIME’s China bureau chief

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