Sign Up

Tobacco: The Opium War of the 21st Century?

Does the Chinese obsession with smoking have its roots in British trade policy?

March 2, 2013


When Christopher Columbus explored the New World in 1492, he found Native Americans smoking a native plant, tobacco, which they did both for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.

Columbus was also the first to introduce tobacco in Europe — and can thus be seen as the father of the global tobacco trade. Without him, the international tobacco companies would not have the lucrative business they have had for decades and still have today.

From 1617 to 1793, tobacco was the most widely used and valuable staple export from the English American mainland colonies and the United States.

Columbus would have never imagined that tobacco would become one of the main threats to health not just today, but already shortly after its introduction in Europe and in several Latin American and Asian countries. It was thus a precursor of sorts to what the 19th-century opium scourge did, particularly to China.

Tobacco, one of the most addictive substances in the world, was introduced to China via Japan or the Philippines in the 1600s. In 1643, Fang Yizhi, a Chinese scholar, was one of the first to warn about the dangers of tobacco.

He wrote that smoking tobacco for too long would “blacken the lungs” and lead to death. Chongzhen, the emperor at the time, outlawed growing tobacco and smoking its leaves.

Why then are the Chinese today the world champions of smoking, especially Chinese men? The answer is rooted in a very bad case of Western-imposed governance.

Chalk it down to the Treaties of Tianjin (Tientsin), concluded in 1858. That agreement, made among the second French Empire, the United Kingdom, the Russian Empire and the United States, ended the first part of the Second Opium War (1856-1860). The treaty was ratified by the Tongzhi Emperor in the Convention of Peking in 1860, after the war ended.

But it not only legalized the import of opium, it also allowed cigarettes to be imported into China duty-free. By 1900, China was almost entirely permeated by foreign companies.

In 1929, Fritz Lickint, a German scientist from Dresden, published the first statistical evidence linking tobacco use and lung cancer. His finding was confirmed in 1950 in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

It was only in 1999, 70 years after Lickint’s first study, that the Philip Morris tobacco company acknowledged that, “There is an overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other serious diseases in smokers.”

Today, while its use has diminished considerably in industrialized countries, continuing tobacco use is having a devastating effect on the health of the Chinese population.

As Dr. Bernard Lown, a famous cardiologist and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, indicated in 2007, “The struggle against tobacco is not being won, it is being relocated.” He also pointed out that cigarettes are becoming more addictive and more lethal because of the higher tar and nicotine content.

The state-owned China National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC), founded in 1982, accounts for roughly 30% of the world’s total production of cigarettes, and it is the largest manufacturer of tobacco products. China National Tobacco Corporation falls under the jurisdiction of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA).

The STMA has been under constant pressure from the World Trade Organization (WTO) to loosen its monopoly. Since 2001, increased access has been granted to foreign companies. Today, although CNTC dominates China’s market, foreign brands can still be found in large cities in China.

A nation of smokers

Tobacco smoking continues to place a heavy toll on the Chinese people’s health. It is estimated that every day roughly 2,000 Chinese die because of smoking-related ailments.

China now has approximately 360 million smokers — a number greater than the U.S. population. They consume 37% of the world’s cigarettes. According to the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, smoking will be responsible for approximately 3.2 million deaths annually by 2030 in China alone.

The U.S. government has been extremely successful in discouraging smoking at home. Against that backdrop, it is bewildering — if only logical — to see that the same government is wielding its power in trade negotiations.

To what end? Apparently to make up to the U.S. tobacco companies for the declines that they have encountered in the U.S. domestic market. That is why the Untied States has successfully put pressure on Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand to break their domestic tobacco monopolies. Now those markets are being flooded with American cigarettes.

Here is how a very honorable former U.S. official, the late U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop — who passed away on February 25 at the age of 96 — put it: “People will look on this era of the health of the world, as imperialistic as anything since the British Empire — but worse.”

The burden of disease provoked by tobacco globally is enormous — and not just because of its association with lung cancer. Tuberculosis may enhance the risk of lung cancer and is further magnified by smoking.

In developing countries, some occupational hazards may become co-carcinogens in exposed workers. The increased health costs as a result of smoking are an integral component of the tragic legacy of tobacco.

To combat smoking, it is necessary to mobilize communities, educate people about the health risks and high costs of smoking, impose punitive fines in class action suits, and increase taxes on cigarettes.

The Chinese government has indicated its intention to lower the negative impact of smoking on the Chinese people through a series of measures. A much more comprehensive attack on tobacco use, however, still needs to be implemented.


The struggle against tobacco is not being won, it is being relocated to Asia.

While tobacco use has diminished in industrialized countries, it is having a devastating effect on the health of the Chinese population.

Christopher Columbus was the first to introduce tobacco in Europe, and can thus be seen as the father of the global tobacco trade.