When I first came to China, I thought the country was on fire - literally. Everywhere I went, there seemed to be a pall of smoke hanging over things, filling rooms, and almost condensing out of the walls in restaurants.
Coming from Australia, where smokers huddle together into small, outdoor ghettos, I was surprised at just how many people smoked. There seems to be nowhere that Chinese smokers won't have a crafty cigarette.
Recently, I jumped into a cab to find the driver was smoking. When I pointed to the big "No Smoking" sign on the dashboard, he just shook his head and proffered the packet of cigarettes to me.
I sighed and rolled down the window for the rest of the journey.
Smoking is entrenched in Chinese celebrations. At my wedding, we handed out the traditional candies to people who came. I had said to my wife, Ellen, that handing out packets of cigarettes was wrong, as it just encouraged people to continue a deadly habit.
"But it's traditional," she replied, "People would think we were mean if we don't!"
Over the years I've been given cartons of cigarettes as gifts and have always handed them straight back. This might make me look ungrateful in Chinese eyes, but I can't understand the logic behind handing someone a gift that will cause them to smell terrible, have awful breath, permeate their clothes with smoke, and ultimately kill them.
Many countries outside of China have begun to roll out cigarette packs with graphic photographs of the results of smoking, such as images of jaw and lung cancer. The sale of cigarettes is tightly regulated and confined to outlets where their display, and advertising, is strictly regulated, and proof of age is required to be shown before purchase.
In China, it seems you can buy cigarettes just about anywhere. I've seen them for sale in the foyer of a hospital specializing in the treatment of cancer - and nearly fainted at the sight.
This year the university I work at, Tianjin Medical, has taken the bold step of declaring the entire campus "smoke free".
As my students are either doctors doing postgraduate studies, or medical students on their way to being MDs, I thought they would be in favor of such a move - but I was wrong.
Many of them have complained to me that they see this as curtailing their civil liberties, and that they should be allowed to smoke when and where they like.
When I pointed out to them that cigarettes are known to be carcinogenic not only to those smoking them, but even to those breathing in second hand smoke, the argument was dismissed with a wave. "Those studies aren't conclusive", one doctor replied. "Besides, my grandmother told me that smoking is manly."
Tempting as it was to ask if she was also a doctor, I let the argument go and went off in search of some fresh air.
Not all students feel the same way and have started to put up banners around the lecture rooms, which spell out in no uncertain terms the risks involved with smoking, my favorite being: "Smoking is slow suicide!"
What really caught my eye about the problems associated with trying to become a non-smoking campus was the handyman who was putting up the large red and white bi-lingual "No Smoking" signs.
Before starting to nail each one to the wall, he'd light up a cigarette, puff away furiously for a moment, then hammer the sign up, before savagely stubbing out the butt.
(China Daily 03/15/2011 page20)