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Blowing smoke: China's economic savior?

BY CHRIS STEINKE | APRIL 12, 2012 6:30 AM

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Not a lot of people are manipulating statistics to paint cigarette-smoking in a positive light, and I'm sure there must be a good professional, journalistic reason for this to be the case, but I'm going to do it, anyway.

Sure, smoking cigarettes probably isn't a good idea for any individual person to do at any given time, but cigarettes can be viewed as a positive thing for certain collectives of people. For example: China. The argument can be made that promoting cigarettes in China would be better for the long-term future of the country than, say, restricting them.

This may ruffle some of my 20-person readership's feathers, but please hear me out before tossing the paper in the trash can next to the paper recyclables. Cigarettes can help ease the financial burden on younger generations, cut down on health-care costs, generate a bunch of tax-revenue to improve Chinese infrastructure, and give excuses to hundreds of millions of people wanting to get out of awkward, drunk conversations.

What more could a developing nation ask for?

China is developing but on the brink of becoming developed. Its GDP has been rising rapidly, hovering around a 10 percent clip for the last twenty years — but this rate isn't projected to last too long.

As developing countries tend to do, China has made huge strides in its health care over the past 50 years, with life expectancy skyrocketing from 41 years in 1955 to 71 as of 2005. They also did that whole "Oh my God we have way too many people so you can only have one kid" thing, so, as one would expect, the Chinese population is getting really old, really fast. In fact, China is aging at one of the fastest paces ever recorded. By 2030, one quarter of the population is projected to be 60 years or older.

Though the world might see a rapid increase in wise Chinese proverbs, China's economy will suffer because of age. The younger generations — usually tasked with expanding business and growing the economy — will be burdened with paying for their parents' and grandparents' health care. And a lot of those younger generations don't have brothers and sisters to help chip in. Good luck opening a store when 50 percent of your income is being pissed away into a bedpan.

And that's a pretty big economy — so big that, you know, if it tanks it might affect everyone on Earth. So let's get them on some cigarettes, stat, right?

What's that? Cancer treatment also takes a huge toll on national health-care budgets? Yeah, China noticed that, too. Apparently, treating non-communicable diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke cost the country about $56 billion per year.

That's a ton of money. Not as much as the country rakes in as government-owned cigarette revenue, mind you ($95 billion), but still — a lot of money. It's not that much compared with long-term care costs for the elderly, but still a decent amount of money.

The EPA estimates that, in the United States, it costs about $11,000 per year to care for non-terminal lung cancer after $32,000 in initial costs. Now, compare that with long-term elderly care.

A semi-private nursing home costs about $70,000 per year in the United States.

For comparison sake, let's say the health-care rates are the same in the United States as they are in China, and assume the Chinese don't want their elderly rotting away in cellars. If 1,000,000 people (or 0.07 percent of their population) died of lung cancer at 65 instead of something else 20 years later, with the health-maintenance costs of 10 years and five years, respectively, that would save the nation of China $208 billion in health-care costs.

Just as I don't wish death to anyone, I wouldn't recommend smoking to anyone. But it's conceivably possible that promoting cigarette-smoking in China would translate to a long-term greater good in both China and, as globalization goes, the rest of the world.


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