Chinese officials told they must smoke

A Chinese province has ordered government officials to smoke cigarettes in a bid to fight the credit crunch.

According to BBC Radio 4 program Today, the local government of Hubei province has ordered its employees to buy and smoke their way through 230,000 packs of cigarettes.

One in three cigarettes are smoked in China, where the habit is still very popular. An attempt by the State government to introduce no smoking for the Olympics last year foundered because the move attracted the ire of the population.

Indeed, when we went to Shanghai last year to cover the Intel Developer Forum, we were taken by the existence of large shops which displayed the local cigarette wares with their strength, their length and other vital statistics which excluded the amount of nicotine, carbon monoxide, and the rest. You even find doctors smoking when they greet you in their clinics, according to the BBC program.

This is not as bizarre as it may seem. Not so long ago, patients in British hospitals could light up, smoking on trains and the Tube was common, and the back of a plane was haven for ciggie addicts.

A popular brand in the country is Zhongnanhai, which is the name of the centre of government in Beijing. There was, apparently, a cigarette factory set up by former leader Mao tse Tung in the Forbidden City. He puffed away happily on his own cigarettes, except presumably when he was showing how fit he was by swimming in the Yantgze River in 1966. Presumably his cigarettes would have gotten wet.

The situation is different in Taiwan, a country which China claims as its own. There, a no smoking ban is being enforced with some vigor. India too banned smoking in public places last year.