Everyone Please Smoke
by Mark Jenkins
I have just returned from my fifteenth sojourn in China and am delighted to report that the Everyone Please Smoke policy launched by Beijing ten years ago has been a resounding success. Everywhere I went practically everyone was smoking. Junior high girls to junior executives, lawyers to listless slackers, sales clerks to teachers. People were pleasurably puffing away in every office, every park, every plane, every public space of any kind including libraries and state run preschools. There appeared to be no class distinctions or gender differences among smokers, as would befit a deeply egalitarian society. The air in every restaurant, from a noodle shop on the outskirts of Chengdu to a five-star vegan boutique in Shanghai, was deliciously thick with blue cigarette smoke.
Much of the success of the Everyone Please Smoke policy must be credited, not surprisingly, to education. All first graders in China are now required to take an after-school class called, simply, How to Smoke. The children are given cigarettes and shown the basic principles of smoking. How to safely light a cigarette, how to hold and manipulate the cigarette in their little fingers, how to deeply inhale the smoke, and of course how to safely extinguish the cigarette. The government provides cigarettes for the first month, but thereafter, the children must bring their own. (There are friendly vendors hawking individual cigs in cafeterias.) By the end of the school year, every child must demonstrate the ability to smoke at least four cigarettes in one hour. The few children who refuse to smoke are severely disciplined. To encourage participation in the How to Smoke program, certificates of achievement, plus t-shirts emblazoned with I AM A SMOKER, are given to those children who have truly excelled at smoking.
When I first went to China, in 1984, I’m afraid it was quite rare to see children smoking. Now, thankfully, playgrounds across this great nation are hazy with smoke before school, after school and during recess. These children, proud little smokers that they are, have done an extraordinary job at getting their parents involved, relying on the it’s-something-the-whole-family-can-do-together ploy.
Naturally, in a nation with 1.4 billion people, over the years the Everyone Please Smoke policy has had its share of setbacks. For a long time, women lagged behind men in their rates of smoking. This was very cleverly addressed by a federal law called Take A Break. Factory workers, office employees and retail employees were only allowed to take work breaks if he or she smoked. This did the trick. Today, I can assure you that women everywhere in China are smoking like chimneys, just like the men. And not just factory workers or office assistants, but scientists, engineers even doctors. I happened to spend a day in a hospital for a minor respiratory problem after a long night in a loud restaurant, and I was heartened to see the nurses handing out cigarettes to all the pregnant women.
So what does Beijing think about the stunning success of this program? Through a bribe of several cases of Camels, I managed to get an interview with Beijing’s Minister of Excessive Longevity, Mr. Soon Wee Di, a man so small you would think he was a boy until you saw his face.
“I must say the number of new smokers shocked me,” said Di between puffs, “through our combined programs, in just one decade, we have increased smoking by a factor of ten. Who can claim that!”
Di admitted that there were still a few stubborn individuals who refused to smoke, but didn’t believe making it illegal not to smoke was the right course.
“Persuasion. It’s all about persuasion,” said Di, stamping out his butt in a large, overflowing ashtray and immediately lighting another long cigarette. “They must be gently shown how disloyal and unChinese not smoking really is.”
However, Di may be taking undue credit for the success of the Everyone Please Smoke campaign. Beijing owns the China National Tobacco Corporation, the largest cigarette manufacturer in the world, and has done a topnotch job of advertising, distribution and sales. There is not a street corner in China where you can’t buy cigarettes or see a billboard of beautiful happy people smoking. Globally, China National Tobacco is larger than the top five other tobacco manufacturers combined, makes 43 out of every 100 cigarettes on the planet, and had revenues of $170 billion in 2012.
China National Tobacco refused my request for a formal interview, but I managed a number of useful clandestine conversations in obscure smoky bars. “Beijing simply copied what the U.S. did in the 40s and 50s,” explained one informant. “Internationally recognized advertising firms were retained to develop pro-smoking slogans. Some of the world’s best research chemists were handsomely paid to develop highly addictive cigarettes.” One nervous, chain smoking executive told me in confidence that, “The government is getting rich! This tobacco is like meth,” pointing to his cigarette, “one hit and you’re hooked.”
In the course of my travels, I was told several times that I needed to speak to a Mr. Wi. Wi was once high up in the communist party. He was a young man during the Mao administration and strategically worked his way up the ladder, eventually becoming Minister of Actuaries. Then he somehow got sideways with Beijing and was forced to go underground. Through a series of longstanding connections, I discovered Mr. Wi was living in Hong Kong. We met in an anonymous coffee shop in a poorer district of the city. Mr. Wi had no hair on his head but for few long gray strands hanging from moles on his face. He wore heavy, black-framed glasses, used a cane firmly with a knuckled hand and spoke so softly I had to put my ear near his mouth.
“Of course we in the actuarial business knew exactly what the one-child policy would eventually do to China,” he whispered, and began to slowly explain.
In 1980, when the one-child policy went into effect, it appeared to be the perfect solution to famine, poverty and overpopulation. Wi acknowledged that this program worked well for almost a generation. But the long-term problems were self-evident. The one-child policy would gradually flip the demographics of the country on its head, and there would be too many old people and too few young people to support them.
“Numerous counter-measures were suggested,” croaked Wi, “many of them somewhat draconian in nature. But the answer was right in front of us the whole time.”
Wi claims that he was watching an old Humphrey Bogart movie when the Everyone Please Smoke idea came
to him. (This is apparently what got him into hot water. He says he now knows he should simply have said he was watching a cadre movie.)
“In my subsequent research I learned that over a half million Americans were dying from smoking every year, and that worldwide, smoking was eliminating over 5 million people annually.”
Within several years, Everyone Please Smoke became the largest single program in the Ministry of Actuaries.
“You have seen for yourself the success of such a foresighted policy,” said Wi with a wink behind his smudged glasses. “Within just a few decades, Everyone Please Smoke will not only eliminate population growth, but dramatically reduce overall population. It will make the one-child policy appear almost simple-minded.” ●