Asia Still Lighting Up

Smokers taking a break in Beijing. CBS

I'm Barry Petersen, and this Letter from Asia comes from Beijing and Tokyo.

Let's hear a round of applause for anti-smoking advocates in the U.S., winning left and right these days. Can't smoke in restaurants or bars in a lot of states. How times have changed.

Or have they? Because here in Asia the stop smoking battle is failing big time.

In places like the Philippines the number of smokers…men women and children…is still increasing.

In the decades ahead…smoking deaths in Asia will be four times what they are today.

It's no wonder. In China, where more than 60 percent of men smoke, it's okay to light up most anywhere…even places where American smokers were long since banned.

And no one is actively trying to get people to stop smoking. No commercials on TV, no big push for good health. Maybe it's because China is an emerging economy, which is definitely not the case for China's neighbor, 1,500 miles to the east.

The richest and most health conscious country in Asia is Japan. You'd think that here, if anywhere, the government would be trying to get smoker to kick the habit.

But in Japan, almost half the men smoke…that's twice the number in the U.S. One reason...the government is as hooked on nicotine as the people. It owns most of the nation's one tobacco company, and rakes in billions every year in taxes and profits.

Anti-smoking activists find themselves fighting their own government.

Japan deals with smoking not as a health issue…but a matter of culture. Young girls hand out portable ashtrays to make smoking more…polite. And police in one ward encourage smokers to take it indoors so as not to annoy people on the sidewalk…politely, of course.

And if politics makes strange bedfellows, it's nothing compared to the tiny anti-smoking movement in Asia. It just got a brand new ally.

Kim Jong Il – the reclusive dictator of North Korea, is now Asia's most prominent anti-smoking scold…ordering his people to snub them out.

It's said the most ardent anti-smokers are those who once smoked…like Kim.

So maybe Kim is the North Korean leader America loves to hate. But you've got to hand it to him on this one. He's right. When it comes to smoking, Asia is still in the dark ages. And there is no indication that Asian nations will kick the habit…anytime soon.

By Barry Petersen
  • Bob Bicknell

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