There has been a barrage of justifiable criticism of China's failure to implement a commitment the country made five years ago. The government ratified the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, pledging to ban smoking in all indoor public places by this past Sunday. That didn't happen which begs the question as to how seriously China treats the "smoking problem."
China‘s English language newspapers have been full of the many reasons that people continue to smoke including, but not limited to, tobacco’s addictive nature, depictions of smoking in movies, the relative low-cost of cigarettes in China and, of course, the lack of effective legislative prevention and cessation programs due to the various local governments' dependency upon revenues from the tobacco industry,
Relatively little attention has been paid to the social norms which encourage smoking or how to utilize social norms to develop successful campaigns to wipe out smoking. Those norms are a central predictor in individuals' decisions to smoke.
Social norms are behavioral expectations or cues within a society or group. So, for example, when people attend a banquet and large bowls of cigarettes are placed on the tables, there is both an expectation that people should enjoy smoking with their meal and a social cue to light up. Simply changing the smoking bowl norm would cause less smoking at those social occasions and would improve the meal (not to mention the health) of those people subjected to second-hand smoke.
In addition to anti-smoking laws, societies must establish social norms which make smoking "uncool."
The 2010 Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) and other recent reports have highlighted some interesting facts about smoking in China and can provide a jumping-off place from which China can target efforts to reduce smoking.
Tobacco is the No.1 killer of Chinese people according to an assessment report, titled "Tobacco Control and China's Future," released last week.
There are 300 million smokers in China - about a quarter of the population - and the country consumes one-third of the world's cigarettes. It is estimated that about 3.5 million Chinese will die each year, nearly 10,000 each day, from tobacco-related illnesses by 2030.
Those are just some of the bleak facts but there are two important clues as to how to attack the problem.
First, cigarette smoking is a behavior which most often develops during adolescence. The GATS report found that over half of the daily smokers aged 20-34 started daily smoking before the age of 20.
Second, nearly 53% of adult men in China smoke; less than 3% of women smoke. If we know that the main smokers in China are male and that they begin daily smoking when they are teenagers or even younger, then efforts to curtail smoking should start by targeting that demographic in order to change the social norm that has likely made smoking seem a manly lifestyle choice for boys.
Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the American-based Institute for Analytical Journalism and a former psychology teacher. He lives in Beijing.