The first time I went to China was 2001 to do an "internet project" in Shanghai. Like thousands of western business flunkies before me, I was assigned a number one boy to help me with everything I could desire. He was a lovely chap, and seemed rather sad that my desires were rather pedestrian. I didn't seem to want anything fun or dangerous. He was most baffled by my non-smoking ways - he reminded me several times how cheap a pack of western cigarettes are in China. Most well known brands can be had for about USD1. Local brands are stunningly cheap, the cheapest being CNY2, or about 25 cents US per pack. In China, more people smoke than don't.
Leading the way as ever were Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, chain smokers, who both lived to a ripe, if smelly and somewhat yellowed, old age. You can, in fact, buy Mao Cigarettes in their wonderfully shiny red box. They make a great gift. The Chinese government is only recently starting to ban smoking in places like airports and government offices.
Like spitting, throwing your cigarette butts is something that is done anywhere and everywhere in China, including inside. Butts are never ground out, simply left to smoulder where they drop. This can be a real hazard anywhere of course, but it becomes most worrying on buses, on trains, and in hotels. Any hotel that isn't four or five star in China will have multiple burns on the carpet and often also on bedside tables. Storing your luggage under your seat in a Chinese train is like an invitation to have it sacrificed as a burnt offering to the god of smoking.
Asking someone if they would mind not smoking in China is an absolute affront to anyone other than university students who have exposure to "western culture" (actually more likely exposure to a western student seriously going nuts about smoking) and who will likely grumpily comply. Asking to be directed to the "non-smoking section" in anything but the most western focused restaurant will likely simply earn you puzzled looks. In fact, using my not-totally-useless Chinese, I have asked to be seated in the non-smoking section, only to have the waitstaff assume they have misheard me, and hand me an ashtray!
Back to my number one. As I was leaving, he asked me one final time if I was going to buy any cigarettes to take home "for my family". He likely assumed that it would only be me who didn't smoke, surely my father would! I couldn't resist:
"They'll kill you, you know!" I began, as an opener.
"I have heard that western cigarettes are poisonous" he said, looking very wise. "But in China, our cigarettes are healthy. If they were dangerous, I am sure the government would put warnings on the packet like you have in your country."
And to that, there was nothing whatsoever I could say. He was, of course, absolutely right.
Everything Quests - Smoking
Smoking in China, the facts: In 2000 350 million Chinese were counted as smokers (about 50 million of them in their teens). This is 1/4 of the world's smokers. 62% of Chinese males and 4% of Chinese females smoke, which makes 38% of the total population. Unlike almost everywhere in the developed world, the number of smokers is increasing in percentage terms year-on-year in China. At the time of writing the rate of increase is about 1/2 a percent per year, the most dramatic increase among young girls. It is not an exaggeration to say that smoking kills and will kill fully one third of all Chinese men.
Smoking in China, UPDATE: In an Olympic effort, all restaurants in Beijing were required to have non-smoking sections as of August 2008. Now they do. The non-smoking sections, however, are in almost all cases located directly adjacent to the smoking sections, making their "non-smoking" status somewhat moot.