The nation produces more cigarettes than any other in the world. Its stores offer a vast assortment of brightly packaged tobacco products. Its doctors seem even more wedded to the smoking habit than their patients.
Another recital of America's nicotine craze?
No, the nation is China.
Amid complaints of severe shortages of cotton and cooking oil, the state tobacco industry of the People's Republic turned out at least 725 billion cigarettes last year, 60 billion more than the United States. Chain-smoking Communist Party chiefs created a blue haze at Politburo meetings. Chinese guides laughed at worried comments from visiting American health officials.
But not, in another change from the days of that late, great nicotine addict, Mao Tse-Tung, Peking is gently suggesting to the 900 million Chinese that smoking may be hazardous to their health. With a 60 percent tax collected on each cigarette pack, this new campaign could cut deep into government revenues. But says one unworried former official: "They'll never get anybody to quit."
The sudden antitobacco warning, after decades of benign neglect, comes in an article in the Kwangming Daily, a Peking newspaper aimed at intellectuals and professionals. Two distinguished Chinese doctors wrote that cigarettes may have some connection with bronchitis, emphysema, throat and lung cancer, hypertension and heart disease.
Although China is a long way from Marlboro Country, Peking's tobacco makers have benefittd for years from a powerful smoking promotion that would be the envy of Madison Avenue. The nation's most respected and emulated leaders, from Mao Tse-Tung and Chou En-lai on down, regularly appeared in movies and on television flicking ashes. As Michael Pertschuk, new chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, noted after a 1976 visit to China as a member of a congressional staff delegation, a museum displayed Mao's cigarette tin and smoking often was stimulated through "the modeling effect within a society which has always harbored great respect for authority."
The energetic party vice chairman, Teng Hsiao-ping, an anthusiastic smoker, continues that tradition today. Even Mao's less experienced successor, Chairman Hua Kuo-feng, has been seen in public lately puffing on a cigarette.
In a country otherwise committed to the socialist logic of single product lines, the cigarette industry offers an embarrassment of brands: among them Chungwa, Butterfly, Golden Deer, Mudan, Shanghai, Chungchow, Panda, Peony, Golden Orchid and Sailing Boat. This last was advertised at a recent Philippine trade fair as impregnated with herbs for "allaying asthma and relieving cough."
All this color and image promotion have helped produce a phenomenon familiar in the United States: Young people are smoking in greater and greater numbers. According to the Kwangming Daily article, that trend is what most disturbs the Chinese government, and has led it to break its official silence on tobacco hazards.
"Young people are the successors of our proletarian revolutionary cause, so the party and the state must show special care for their healthy growth," the article said. "The number of young smokers has been increasingly . . ." it added, without providing any statistics. "To counter this trend, we will mount an education program that will enlist the support of teachers and parents . . ."
Pertschuk asked back in 1976, at the time of Mao's death, "Why is it that no national campaign has been launched to counter smoking in China?" The answer provided by the Kwangming Daily is neither surprising nor satisfactory: The Gang of Four, that clique of party dogmatists led by Mao's wife Chiang Ching, had blocked the effort to "protect the health of the people" for their own crass political motives, the article said.
The Kwangming authors, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Chairman Huang Chia-szu and Traditional Medicine Research Institute Chairman Li Chung-bu, failed to mention an earlier explanation by the revered Chou En-lai: "There is an old Chinese proverb to the effect that a wise ruler never passes a law which he knows his people will not obey."
The two doctors also did not mention what a thriving domestic and overseas business the Chinese tobacco industry does. The official press is beginning to hint, however, at strong-arm tactics to keep that demand at such a high level.
The People's Daily recently printed a letter from Sun Pao-kuo, a teacher in northeast China. He said in his town "whatevery you buy, whether it is fish, meat or anything else, you are forced to buy a packet of Patriotism brand cigarettes."
The newspaper said that in the central Chinese town of Huaipei, every purchaser of a pack of Unity cigarettes also had to buy a pack of Chianghuai cigarettes, even though they were considered a much inferior brand.