Zou Jiushi began smoking at the age of 16, but it wasn't until three decades later when he began suffering from high blood pressure that he realized the habit could ruin his health.
Doctors told Zou, now a 54-year-old primary school teacher in Nanxiong County, Guangdong Province, that smoking can raise blood pressure and increase the risk of heart and blood vessel diseases.
"I decided to quit," he said.
While Zou eventually overcame his addiction, the trend among most Chinese smokers is quite the opposite. The number of smokers is still rising, and according to the Ministry of Health, there were 350 million smokers in China at the end of last year.
Zou's son, Zou Yuanzhi, a 27-year-old who works for an IT company in Shenzhen, began smoking at the age of 14 and has no plans to quit.
"My father used to smoke at home and in the office, and I think it had an impact on me," he said.
As China and the World Health Organization observe World No Tobacco Day tomorrow and Chinese smokers try to put out their cigarettes for just one day, anti-smoking advocates are focusing more efforts on young people who, like Zou Yuanzhi, started smoking because they lived in a smoking environment.
Zou Yuanzhi's environment was more pro-smoking than most. Nanxiong County has a 300-year tobacco-planting history. Last year it produced 23,100 tons of tobacco, nearly 45 per cent of the total in Guangdong, the local statistics bureau said.
"Almost all local people like me began smoking at an early age, since they come from tobacco-planting areas, and they easily developed addictions to cigarettes," Zou Jiushi said. "They can hardly quit smoking now."
Figures from the National Tobacco Control Office last year support that claim. The 350 million Chinese smokers account for nearly one-third of the world's total.
Of that total, 220.5 million (63 per cent) are male adults and 14 million (4 per cent) are female adults. More than 100 million smokers are under the age of 18.
Wu Fan, director of the National Tobacco Control Office, said children are susceptible to developing addictions to nicotine after being affected by smokers.
"It partially explains why there is an ever-increasing number of Chinese children who become smokers."
What's more, the same survey indicated that people begin smoking at an average age of 19, five years earlier than the average starting age in 1997.
In Beijing alone, more senior middle school students have become smokers. Another survey, by the Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign Committee, indicated earlier this month that 51.3 per cent said they smoke at home and 40.6 per cent said they smoke in school every week.
Wu said something must be done to reverse the trend.
"Special laws should be drafted to prevent young people from developing an addiction to smoking," he said. Those in leadership roles, such as teachers, should be urged not to smoke in front of youngsters.
"Smoking by teachers, like parents, is also regarded as one of the factors affecting children who finally fall into the habit of smoking," Wu said.
A national education and health programme sponsored by the Ministry of Health will forbid smoking in 90 per cent of all primary and middle schools by 2010.
A number of Chinese cities, such as Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, have already started campaigns to help students say no to smoking.
In June 2004, Guangzhou Education Bureau and the China Smoking and Health Association launched a "no first cigarette" campaign at the city's primary and middle schools.
The same month, the Beijing Tobacco Monopoly Bureau banned vendors from operating within 100 metres of any school.
In Shanghai, legislators put a student smoking ban into effect in 2004, aiming to protect the city's minors.
"Anti-smoking education should be particularly stressed to children in school, because they are more vulnerable to cigarettes," Wu said.
The China Tobacco Monopoly Law of 1991 banned any vendor from selling cigarettes to students. However, Wu said, enforcement on a national level is almost impossible.
Parents should also join the anti-smoking campaign for children, Wu said, and more public places, like offices, classrooms, dormitories and restaurants, should have non-smoking sections.
China is the world's largest tobacco producer and consumer, growing about 1.1 million hectares of tobacco and consuming about 38.9 million boxes of cigarettes last year, according to the China National Tobacco Corporation.
The statistics show about 1 million people in China die from smoking-related diseases every year, or one-fifth of the world's total.
"If the current situation goes on, China will have nearly 3 million people who die from smoking in 2050," Wu said.
Medical research has already proved that 25 kinds of diseases, including lung cancer, cardio-vascular and coronary heart disease are linked to smoking.
"Among the deaths, there are also some who are regarded as passive smokers, as second-hand smoking also greatly affects people's health," Wu said.
About 53.4 per cent of non-smokers in China are affected by second-hand smoking every day, and of those, the annual death rate is 3.5 per cent, Wu said.
In a statement to launch anti-smoking activities before the 19th World No Tobacco Day, which falls annually on May 31, the Ministry of Health urged departments at all levels to strictly enforce non-smoking regulations in public places and to develop no-smoking policies in hospitals, schools and government offices.
Prior to this year's World No Tobacco Day, which has a theme of "Tobacco: Deadly in Any Form or Disguise," China encouraged people to participate in the "Quit and Win" activity, which the WHO holds every two years.
However, Wu said that controlling smoking is very difficult in China for various reasons: Smoking is still accepted to some degree in society. There is a close relationship between the production and consumption of tobacco and the national economy. Cigarette companies are still allowed to advertise their brands, albeit with some restrictions, which keeps the cigarettes in a high profile in the eyes of the public.
Wu said the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which officially went into effect in China on January 9, would help control smoking.
China approved the convention, the first global health treaty aimed at tobacco control, last September.
As a member, China will set strict controls over tobacco production, will not set up any new tobacco companies from this year and will ban tobacco advertisements by September 2010.
"Because signing the WHO framework implies an acceptance of the scientific evidence proving smoking causes death, disease and disability, the country should better promote no-smoking awareness among the public, particularly among young people," Wu said.
Wang Tianyou, a professor with Capital University of Medical Sciences in Beijing, agrees with Wu, saying promoting awareness among children is the key to controlling smoking.
"Only when people, especially children, are fully aware that smoking causes great harm to health can they finally say no to tobacco," Wang said.
Wang also suggested that the country increase the tax and price of cigarettes, to discourage their sales.
"There are a large number of smokers who have lower and medium incomes," he said. "As a result, the increased price may force them, together with children who have no income, not to buy cigarettes so frequently."
Source: China Daily