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A look at the cigarette epidemic in China

A new book by Stanford researchersexamines China’s cigarette industry to understand the root causes of our global cigarette epidemic.

The imagery of a cuddly panda bear has often been used to sell tobacco products in China. So a new book that examines China’s tobacco industry seems aptly titled: Poisonous Pandas: Chinese Cigarette Manufacturing in Critical Historical Perspectives.

The book brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars — including Stanford editors Matthew Kohrman, PhD, professor of anthropology, and Robert Proctor, PhD, professor of history. Together the team has investigated how transnational tobacco companies have worked to triple the world’s annual cigarette consumption since the 1960s. They focus on the China National Tobacco Corporation, which currently produces 40 percent of cigarettes sold globally.

In a recent Freeman Spogli Institute Q&A, Kohrman discusses how he got involved in this work. “When I began my ethnographic fieldwork on tobacco in China, I initially studied mostly consumer behavior. But I quickly realized that focusing solely on cigarette consumption, without considering the relationship between supply and demand, was like studying obesity while ignoring food,” he says.

Kohrman explains that cigarettes have become the single greatest cause of preventable death in the world today and the problem is getting worse. “Instead of declining as we would expect based on our impressions living here in California, the number of daily cigarette smokers around the world is projected to continue climbing,” he says. In particular, he explains the big tobacco companies are targeting less-educated people from lower- and middle-income countries.

Kohrman does offer some hope in light of the Chinese government’s recent initiatives to restrict tobacco advertising and smoking in public places. But he says that there is a lot more work to do.

“The road towards comprehensive tobacco prevention in China is going to be a long one,” Kohrman concludes.

Image by Dimhou

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