The Rise of Vaping in Tobacco-Hooked China

If Big Tobacco had a promised land, it would be China.

Home to over 300 million smokers – almost the entire population of the US – the country literally feeds off cigarette sales, generating more in tobacco tax revenue every year than it spends annually on the military.

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Cigarettes in China aren’t merely the sign of a bad habit – they’ve become part of the culture. Looking to show your bao’an some gratitude? Hand him a smoke. Attending a Chinese wedding reception? Expect banquet tables stocked with packs of Double Happiness.

Domestic demand alone pushes the state-owned China National Tobacco Corporation to manufacture roughly 40 percent of the world’s cigarettes every year. That makes China the greatest producer – and as the WHO points out, consumer – of tobacco in the world.

“Thinking about Chinese smoking statistics is like trying to think about the limits of space.” 

– Robert Fletcher, Rothmans’ former regional public affairs manager, 1992

But this is hardly a success story. The tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats facing China this century. More than one million mainland smokers die prematurely from tobacco-related disease every year, and if current trends continue, that number will rise to two million by 2030, according to a joint study by researchers at Oxford University, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and the Chinese Center for Disease Control.

“The worst of the epidemic isn’t here yet. It’s yet to come,” says Dr. Homer Tso, head of the tobacco control board at the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital and former chairman of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health.

When we meet Tso in Shenzhen, he wears a red bowtie and carries three business cards. Speaking with a slow confidence and occasionally diverging into medical terms (“Morbidity is the issue,” he says at one point), Tso explains that the real drain and risk to Chinese society is not death from tobacco, but mounting medical costs used to treat patients with cancer, stroke and heart disease – all ailments directly related to smoking.

China has pledged to curb tobacco consumption on a number of occasions. In 2003, it signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which called for a ban on tobacco advertising, major tax hike and improved cessation assistance – “time proven measures in tobacco control,” according to Tso.

“The worst of the epidemic isn’t here yet. It’s yet to come,” says Dr. Homer Tso, head of the tobacco control board at the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital and former chairman of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health.

When we meet Tso in Shenzhen, he wears a red bowtie and carries three business cards. Speaking with a slow confidence and occasionally diverging into medical terms (“Morbidity is the issue,” he says at one point), Tso explains that the real drain and risk to Chinese society is not death from tobacco, but mounting medical costs used to treat patients with cancer, stroke and heart disease – all ailments directly related to smoking.

China has pledged to curb tobacco consumption on a number of occasions. In 2003, it signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which called for a ban on tobacco advertising, major tax hike and improved cessation assistance – “time proven measures in tobacco control,” according to Tso.

“These are steps,” Tso tells us. “It’s a big country. It takes time. But it is happening.”

In 2016, China finally saw what it claimed was the impact of its new legislation: tobacco consumption was reported to have dropped for the first time in 20 years. Not by much – about 2.4 percent according to Euromonitor – but enough to bring China Tobacco to declare, for the first time ever, that the volume of the world’s largest tobacco market had gone into a downward spiral.

But this isn’t just because of new policies. The past two years have also seen the rise of a new tribe of Chinese street-style-loving millennials.

Welcome to the world of vaping.

Fei Xiang doesn’t remember hearing about China Tobacco’s first fall – he was too busy drafting a letter of resignation.

It was October 2016, and the 27-year-old had resolved to quit his desk job and open a vape shop in Guangzhou with a friend. They figured vaping might catch on one day.

“We saw there was potential for this market. It was new, after all, and there could be opportunities.”

Now in what Fei calls a “period of rapid development,” China’s vaping industry is expanding too fast not to notice. Whereas just two years ago, it would have been hard to spot a vape shop in first-tier cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou, today, there are close to a hundred in each, all selling a wide range of vaporizers and e-liquids.

Walk around Beijing’s Gulou area, for example, and you will see shops with goofy names like ‘Vape Professor’ or ‘Vape Saint’ alongside more traditional ones selling tobacco cigarettes.

Read more China vaping

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