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Gumchew diplomacy: The president’s unsightly habit

President Obama as he walks with China’s President Xi Jinping on Tuesday. This clip has been slowed down. (Source: AP)

In June, President Obama’s physician dispatched the results of his third physical examination of the commander in chief. The doctor noted Obama was in “excellent” health except for one minor problem: his history of smoking. But Obama, the report found, was now “tobacco free,” buoyed by the “occasional use” of “Nicotine Gum.”

It’s difficult to find a larger advocate of gum-chewing than the president. Obama chews gum while ensconced in Air Force One watching football. He chews gum while in the throes of a campaign. He chews gum when presiding over World War II commemorations. And to the horror of conservatives, he chewed gum this week at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Beijing. Amid the gallantry of Vladimir Putin and the accusations of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, there was Obama, chewing away.

It’s kind of his thing. And regardless of the criticism facing Obama over the habit, he’s obviously hooked.

For Obama, gum isn’t about vanity. His aides described his quest to kick cigarettes as a “lifelong struggle.” “I was one of these teenagers” who smoked, he said in 2009. “And so I know how difficult it can be to break this habit when it’s been with you for a long time.” And even as late as mid-2010, his medical team reported he was still smoking. Navy Capt. Jeffrey Kuhlman, the White House physician, recommended Obama stick with “smoking cessation efforts,” such as “the use of nicotine gum.”

Of course, not everyone is sympathetic — certainly not the French. “One thing: OBAMA was chewing gum almost uninterrupted,” one Twitter user bleated after Obama was caught chewing gum at a World War II ceremony. “How disrespectful!” Another added, “And #Obama welcomed the Queen with chewing gum in his mouth… #shocking #boor.”

The Chinese, too, weren’t so keen on the president’s jaw workouts. “This is the American manner and humor, but in traditional Chinese culture, it is immature and not serious behavior!” the Wall Street Journal quoted one blogger saying. Another said it spoke to something bigger: “No wonder he doesn’t get any support.”

Republicans seized on the gum-chewing as another example of Obama’s fecklessness. On Fox News, columnist Charles Krauthammer was particularly unforgiving, castigating Obama for chewing gum at this pivotal moment in history: “My mother used to say, ‘Don’t chew gum.’ And that was just in class. Look, the Chinese of all people have been extremely sensitive to the rituals, the decorum, the subtleties, the deference of diplomacy. This goes back 3,000 years! In China, chewing gum is a sign of disrespect.”

There is cause to dispute that assertion, given the wild popularity and eclectic nature of gum in China. (Taijixing Double-Deck Lunch Box Chewing Gum, anyone?) The economic gods have been kind to gum in the Middle Kingdom, where industry behemoth Wrigley controls 45 percent of the gum market. In 2005, the Asia Times even ran a graphic of Mao Zedong blowing a giant bubble above a Tiananmen Square covered in gum. Today, gum in China enjoys “dynamic growth,” the Wall Street journal found earlier this year.

If the East chews this much gum, China and the president have found more common ground than just controlling greenhouse gases. Basketball diplomacy, meet gum-chewing diplomacy.

“Since 1999, China has become Wrigley’s second-largest market, behind only the United States,” the Asia Times reported. “If ever there was an American company that has actually cashed in on the mythic slogan, ‘If every one of China’s billion people bought just one …’ it is Wrigley’s. As a matter of fact, they buy more than one: Chinese, on average, buy 10 sticks of gum a year.” That means the Chinese consume a whopping 14 billion sticks of gum per annum.

“Chinese food has so much garlic,” one man confessed in an interview with the Journal following the purchase of a 40-piece container of chewing gum. “I need to freshen my breath after eating.”

Obama may have separate gum ambitions, but that hasn’t stopped others from finding it odd. Like when he met with David Remnick of the New Yorker, who found the president’s jaws working away on Air Force One. “Obama chewed furtively on a piece of Nicorette,” Remnick wrote. “His carriage and the cadence of his conversation are usually so measured that I was thrown by the lingering habit, the trace of indiscipline. ‘I’m not a purist,’ he said.”

Indeed, he’s not.