Two Cultures Up in Smoke: Comparing China and America

Science & Spirit, July-August 2007 | Go to article overview

Two Cultures Up in Smoke: Comparing China and America


Reported by Science & Spirit

East and West rarely meet, but the great plumes of cigarette smoke over China these days have forced a comparison between its society and the tobacco-friendly United States.

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The booming "cigarette culture" of 1950s America has a massive parallel in Asia, researchers say. Judging by the American experience from the 1950s to 1990s, China faces an unprecedented health challenge: A third of its men now under age twenty-nine are likely to die of tobacco-related illness.

Today, about 45 million Americans smoke at least one cigarette a day, but in China 350 million do. Studies suggest that between five percent and ten percent of smokers will get lung cancer.

The U.S.-China comparison was made by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It has projected China's fate based on American men who were smokers between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-nine: A third of them died of smoking-related causes in the last half of the twentieth century.

Although some advocates and researchers criticize such "scare tactics" and argue that the male deaths have many causes other smoking, health officials have applied the data to speculate on China's fate.

"Right now, at least, the Chinese government is starting to make people aware that smoking is harmful," says The-wei Hu, professor of health economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Making and selling cigarettes is such a large part of the Chinese economy, Hu says, that only economic incentives--such as taxation--might slow the increase in smoking. But he agreed that cultural factors may be equally important, and this is where the comparison between America and China might be fruitful.

America has worked in the context of a Protestant culture, whereas China is a Confucian culture overlain by communism. In America, "temperance is a national ideology," writes David Wagner, a critic of the nation's perennial crusades against sin and vice. Historians have noted that smoking also has been curbed in other countries by totalitarian regimes, while it rises dramatically when free markets and social norms combine to create an accepting cultural environment.

That happened in the United States before World War II; the cigarette industry, the middle class, a generation of soldiers, and Hollywood gave smoking respectability. By the end of World War II, smoking was "socially desirable, even necessary, in some subcultures," Ronald Troyer and Gerald Markle write in their book, Cigarettes: The Battle over Smoking.

Hu told Science & Spirit that China has a similar history. Before communism, in the 1930s, western marketing introduced cigarettes to the Chinese upper class. "There were so many fashionable posters and movies. Then we got a lot of slogans," he says. Eventually, giving cigarettes as gifts became central to the cultural etiquette. This practice was suppressed temporarily by communism, but it is now emerging again with a free market and consumer economy.

Hu says that cigarettes are a primary gift for New Years, weddings, and conflict resolution. They also play a part in romance. "The man says to the women, 'Do you want a stick?' That immediately closes the distance between the two. That's why it's so difficult to change." The brand names include Long Life and Double Happiness.

Despite America's origins as a tobacco planter and exporter, oppositional elements were always found in the culture. England's King James I, for example, complained about "the filthy smoke and stinke" of social gatherings, and resented the social pressure that made smoking "a point of good fellowship."

The first national opposition to tobacco emerged in the late 1880s, as newfangled cigarettes had just begun their rise as the dominant form of smoking. The anti-cigarette movement, driven by Protestant moral reformers, paralleled the fight against alcohol. …

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