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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: June 28, 2010 NO. 26 JULY 1, 2010
Smoke Break



Anyone who has spent any amount of time in China, or anywhere else in East Asia for that matter, knows a thing or two about being a quitter.

Not in the traditional sense of the "high-fiver," the American can-do spirit by which one can or can't do something of monumental importance—from negotiating a business deal worth millions in a part of the world flush with opportunities to finding the best blind massage on offer anywhere.

Instead, in Asia there is another type of quitter who is—in American terms, anyway—a winner: someone who can live here and be free of the nicotine habit without a relapse. Indeed, for those unfamiliar with this dark habit, quitting or continuing to forsake cigarettes here can be far more difficult than it sounds. In fact, depending on one's DNA, unresolved oral fixations or, in some cases, creative obsessions, it can be all but impossible,

In a fast-industrializing China, one can clearly see temptations abound: Nearly everyone here smokes, though men especially. This stands in stark contrast with most of the industrialized world where, whether through taxes or bans in restaurants, bars and businesses, governments have declared a virtual war on smoking.

The cheapness with which cigarettes are available in Beijing is a big problem. Whether China-made, imported, or imitation, cigarettes here can be had on pennies to the dollar.

But the biggest problem for aspiring or would-be reformers may just be the extreme nature with which the habit is practiced here itself. Few who have spent any time on the Chinese mainland, for instance, should be surprised by the fact that more than half of all male doctors here are regular smokers.

During a visit to a prominent Beijing hospital last fall, for example, I couldn't help but notice a physician dashing toward the emergency room with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. (In the back of my mind, I could only hope the good doctor wasn't off to see a burn victim.)

Things differ across Asia, though heavy smoking is a constant. In Southeast Asia, cigarettes are puffed on with a heavier hue of nonchalant bliss. Perhaps this is a product of higher temperatures, relative poverty and a monsoon-like weather that too easily spoils the party when walls of water conspire against the fire, tobacco and nicotine that make cigarettes so enjoyable, so addictive—and so deadly.

Of course, in these poorer regions, fatalistic attitudes themselves often kindle unhealthy habits like smoking. On the plus side, however, people in countries with less money are more inclined to, say, smoke less at a time, or conserve the number of cigarettes they smoke.

But while this overall devil-may-care mentality applies less in wealthier places like China, smoking here remains equally ingrained—albeit with subtle differences. Although here and there bars and restaurants and certain offices are increasingly imposing smoking bans, the habit nevertheless remains practically a free-for-all.

The worst—and most offensive—communal places for offenders are in certain bars, restaurants, and Internet cafes.

For the newly emancipated, the aspiring quitter or simply those who find their steely resolve buckling, there are forms of hypnosis and traditional medicine available to at least supposedly alleviate the symptoms of and cravings for smoking. Nicotine gum, however, is less in evidence. Nonetheless, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting green tea cuts back on the cancerous effects.

But while the conventional choices available to foreigners seeking to quit on the Chinese mainland may be more limited than those back home—there is one thing about China they can draw inspiration from.

It is strength: Something the world's oldest continuous civilization has in spades. If you have any doubts about this, there is a powerful, ancient testament to this uniquely Chinese trait not far from Beijing. It's known as the Great Wall of China.

Check it out sometime.

The writer is an American living in Beijing

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