But according to a new large-scale study in the Lancet medical journal, if current smoking rates continue that number will go up to two million deaths a year by 2030.
Study authors describe it as a “growing epidemic of premature death.”
Many of them will be men. As reported by the BBC and elsewhere, a full third of men that are now under age 20 are going to die prematurely because of their high levels of smoking if they don’t quit.
The gender distribution is crazy: the study found that in China, 68% of men smoke and only 3.2% of women do — but the secondhand smoke from men’s habits puts their health at risk all the same.
Equally as striking: Chinese men smoke one third of the world’s cigarettes.
University of Oxford epidemiologist Zhengming Chen led the study, which looked at results from two nationwide studies that followed hundreds of thousands of people over a 15 year period.
“Smoking will cause about 20% of all adult male deaths in China during the 2010s,” Chen and his colleagues write.
“As the adult population of China grows and the proportion of male deaths due to smoking increases,” they continue, “the annual number of deaths in China that are caused by tobacco will rise from about 1 million in 2010 to 2 million in 2030 and 3 million in 2050, unless there is widespread cessation.”
Like any major demographic trend, there are a number of forces at work driving the out-of-control smoking.
For one, the major Chinese cigarette conglomerate, China National, is owned by the Chinese government. Bloomberg’s Andrew Martin reports that it produced 2.5 trillion cigarettes in 2013, making Philip Morris’s 880 billion cigarettes look modest by comparison. According to Martin, China National controls up to 98% of the Chinese cigarette market, and it accounts for a staggering 7% of the state’s annual revenue.
In a 2010 blog post, Beijinger expat Richard Saint Cyr gave a cultural explanation for the trend. Beyond the “universal issue” of young men trying to look cool, he says that it’s uniquely Chinese for businessmen to drink and smoke together, and it’s rude to refuse the offer of either. Plus historically, “China’s leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were very heavy smokers and always photographed with a cigarette,” he observes.
It’s bound to be a stubborn public health issue, given that “a smoke after dinner is better than life after death” is a popular Chinese saying.
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