Important Facts About Smoking in China

China, Guangxi Province, Yangshuo, fisherman wearing straw coat smoking a pipe
Karen Su/China Span/Getty Images

China is home to approximately 300 million cigarette smokers, representing a full third of the world's smokers and one-quarter of the Chinese population. And of that number, close to 9 million are child smokers (upwards of 18 percent of young boys smoke while 0.5 percent of girls partake), followed by about one million adult women (2.4 percent) who smoke.  The rest, (52.9 percent) are adult males, 15-years-old and up.

China is a country that has historically had little tobacco awareness among consumers or regulation, facts that are reflected in the disturbing statistics below.  

Smoking Habits of Men in China

  • According to a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, at the current rate of tobacco use, one in three adult Chinese men will die of smoking. 
  • Nearly 66 percent of adult men in China start to smoke before they're 20 years old.  If they don't quit, half of those men will die of a smoking-related disease.
  • Chinese men who smoke are six times more likely to develop COPD than their non-smoking counterparts.
  • For smoking men in China who die of cardiovascular disease between the ages of 30 and 44, 46 percent of the deaths are a direct result of cigarette smoking.

Smoking Habits of Women in China

Luckily for women, only a small percentage—just one in twenty-five—of the country's smokers are female, but those who do smoke face similar health risks as male smokers.

This is a culture that considers smoking a man's pastime for the most part.

Smoking among women in most western civilizations is higher among those who are between 25 and 44 years old, but interestingly, in China, the majority of female smokers are older. Researchers believe this is due to women emigrating from mainland China at the end of the 19th and early 20th century who were smokers when they arrived.

 As the years went by, fewer and fewer women started smoking because of cultural expectations, and as a result, older female smokers outnumber young women who smoke today. 

A large percentage of women face health risks from breathing in secondhand smoke in their environment. Approximately 53 percent of women of child-bearing age are exposed to secondhand smoke in the workplace and 65 percent of them breathe it regularly at home. Secondhand smoke is a significant risk factor for pregnancy complications, SIDS, and stillbirth. 

A Conflict of Interest

The Chinese government has a complex relationship with the tobacco industry. The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA) runs China's biggest tobacco manufacturer, the China National Tobacco Corporation. 

At the same time, the Chinese government is also in charge of any anti-smoking legislation that is put in place for citizens.

The Chinese government also receives a fair amount of their annual revenue from tobacco sales. 

There is an obvious and serious conflict of interest going on that impacts everything from tobacco use to tobacco education for citizens.

How Secondhand Smoke Affects China's Citizens

Some strides have been made in recent years to reduce tobacco use, however.


Work on creating China's first tobacco-free healthcare system by Minister of Health Chen Zhu was recognized by the World Health Organization in July of 2012. Later that year, China's Ministry of Health and the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services came together to form the China-United States Partnership on Smoke-free Workplaces, a bilateral public-private partnership.

That said, change is slow, which current statistics show.  

  • Approximately 70 percent of China's population is exposed to secondhand smoke in their daily life, be it at home, work, or public places.
  • 100,000 Chinese people die each year of diseases related to secondhand smoke.
  • Only one-quarter of adult Chinese people understand the specific health risks associated with smoking.
  • Less than one-third of Chinese citizens are aware of the dangers of secondhand smoke.

It doesn't help that cigarettes are cheap in China.  On average, they cost just .75 cents (U.S. currency) or less per pack. Where many countries levy heavy taxation on cigarettes to deter smoking and pay for smoking-related health care costs, China is behind the curve on that.  The World Health Organization recommends a 70 percent tax on tobacco products, but China averages 40 percent per pack.

Other Important Facts About Tobacco Use in China

  • Every year, tobacco claims one million Chinese lives.  That is equal to one life lost every 30 seconds or 3000 dead from tobacco each and every day in China.
  • Estimates are that two million will die a tobacco-related death annually by 2030, and three million will die each year by 2050 unless there is a widespread effort to stop smoking.
  • One in every three cigarettes smoked globally are smoked in China.  In 2009, 2.3 trillion (one trillion is equivalent to one million millions) cigarettes were smoked in China. That was more than the amount of cigarettes consumed in Indonesia, Japan, Russia and the U.S., combined.
  • Not only is China the biggest consumer of tobacco, it also grows the most tobacco.  In 2012, 7.5 metric tons of tobacco leaf was grown on 4.3 million hectares (approximately 2.47 acres per hectare) of land around the world. China produced 3.2 metric tons of tobacco leaf in 2012. The next largest tobacco producer is India, followed by Brazil and the United States respectively.

Here in the United States and other developed countries, anti-smoking legislation and resources have helped lower smoking rates and raise the number of people who have been able to quit. In countries without that advantage like China, however, the contrast is stark.  

Change is coming however, with smoking bans in indoor public places being instituted in Beijing, and a nationwide public smoking ban being considered currently.


World Health Organization, Western Pacific Region (WPRO). Tobacco in China.

The Lancet. Contrasting male and female trends in tobacco-attributed mortality in China: evidence from successive nationwide prospective cohort studies.

The University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research. The Surprising Truth about Women Smokers in China.

The American Cancer Society, World Lung Foundation. The Tobacco Atlas.

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