Striving to keep teenagers from starting smoking

Updated: Jun 1, 2023 Xinhua Print
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GUIYANG -- In some middle schools in China, teachers seeking to keep cigarettes off campus find themselves playing a cat-and-mouse game with students.

Some teen smokers smuggle cigarettes into schools by hiding them in their clothes, or buy from nearby residents who throw cigarettes over walls into the school grounds.

According to a survey conducted by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 16.7 percent of middle school students tried smoking in 2021, down 1.2 percentage points from 2019.

Despite the declining smoking rate, it remains a daunting task to build a smoke-free campus and keep teenagers from starting smoking.

"Although the overall smoking rate of Chinese teenagers is decreasing, it is noticeable that teenagers start smoking from an earlier age and the proportion of students who know and have contact with e-cigarettes is on the rise," said a researcher with the center for disease control and prevention in Southwest China's Guizhou province.

A teacher at a secondary vocational school in East China's Jiangsu province noted that, despite a strict ban on smoking and vigorous inspections, smoking still can't be entirely eliminated from campus.

"Some students in our school have been smoking for a long time and have become addicted to it," said the teacher.

In recent years, China has strengthened its efforts to tackle underage smoking, including blocking teenagers' access to their first cigarette and limiting their exposure to the influence of smokers.

In 2019, several ministries and commissions of the central government jointly issued a notice on strengthening smoking control among teenagers. It stressed that controlling underage smoking is a priority in achieving the goal for 2030 of a 20 percent reduction in the smoking rate among people over the age of 15.

Experts say that many smokers lit up their first cigarettes due to a herd mentality, imitating the behaviors of adults and viewing smoking as a sign of maturity. Surveys have shown that some parents serve as adverse examples.

According to a 2021 survey conducted among 3,000 parents in a secondary vocational school in the city of Zunyi in Guizhou, nearly 300 parents showed tacit approval of student smoking.

While they were surprised by the survey results, many teachers at the school noted that there was a higher smoking rate among teenagers with parents and friends who smoked.

Ke Zhenfu, deputy head of a vocational school in Guizhou, said that reducing teenagers' access to tobacco at the source is the key to effectively improving smoking control.

"Supervision of hidden tobacco sales in schools and surrounding areas should be strengthened and the ban on the sale of all kinds of tobacco, including e-cigarettes, to minors should be strictly implemented," said Ke.

In China, cigarette advertising is strictly banned, but a large number of students still see smoking-related scenes on the internet, especially on short-video sharing platforms.

A 2021 survey showed that 65.9 percent of students had seen smoking-related scenes on TV, video or film over the last 30 days.

Chen Lei, a lawyer based in Hubei province, said that, as most teenagers today are native netizens, the environment of the internet has a great influence on their behaviors.

"Efforts should be strengthened to supervise smoking scenes on platforms such as short-video sharing sites, so as to create a better online environment for teenagers," Chen said.

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